The ag­o­nis­ing wait as the as­sault starts

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It is Tues­day in Pretoria West, and af­ter some of the city’s build­ings are torched and about 30 for­eign-owned shops looted, a group calling it­self the Mamelodi Con­cerned Res­i­dents’ As­so­ci­a­tion an­nounces it will lead a march against un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants on Fri­day and hand over a mem­o­ran­dum to govern­ment.

At 11.00 that morn­ing, Home Af­fairs Min­is­ter Malusi Gi­gaba speaks from Cape Town af­ter the group’s an­ti­im­mi­grant march is ap­proved by the Tsh­wane metro po­lice.

“When peo­ple say there are too many for­eign­ers in the coun­try, they mean there are too many Africans. That is the prob­lem ... We can­not ac­cept that nar­ra­tive with­out crit­i­cis­ing it,” Gi­gaba says.

Re­spond­ing to claims from Nige­ria’s govern­ment that 116 of its cit­i­zens were killed in South Africa in the past two years, Gi­gaba asks: “Should we start count­ing how many South Africans have died in South Africa at the hands of Nige­rian na­tion­als?” This does not help. Early that af­ter­noon, Pretoria’s “So­ma­liland”, an area across the road from Marabas­tad named for the num­ber of So­mali na­tion­als res­i­dent there, is de­serted, save for a few brave shop own­ers.

The at­mos­phere is as mis­er­able as the weather. A girl of about eight in an orange hi­jab sits on the steps of a small shop. Around the cor­ner, a num­ber of mostly black BMWs are parked out­side a large house where men stand watch, aware of strangers on their turf.

“Put your phone down, DON’T AN­SWER THE PHONE HERE!” – these are the or­ders of ANC youth league re­gional sec­re­tary Rat­shi Mashamba to City Press pho­tog­ra­pher Leon Sadiki, whose phone is ring­ing while on a tour of the neigh­bour­hood.

“They will think you are com­mu­ni­cat­ing with po­lice and will want to at­tack us.”

Pretoria West Po­lice Sta­tion is a stone’s throw away. The area con­sists mainly of old coun­cil houses, many of which were auc­tioned and bought by for­eign na­tion­als.

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“Many of the houses were le­git­i­mately pur­chased. South Africans in the area do not seem to ac­cept that there are le­gal pur­chases ... Other houses were hi­jacked. Peo­ple work­ing in town who can­not af­ford much rent live there and pay rent to the hi­jack­ers.

“In some legally pur­chased houses, il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties of drug-deal­ing and traf­fick­ing are hap­pen­ing. Some­times the land­lords don’t know that ten­ants are do­ing il­le­gal things. At other times they keep quiet and ac­cept their money at the end of the month,” Mashamba says.

Pule Mmut­lana, who heads the group prop­erty man­age­ment de­part­ment for the City of Tsh­wane, says the city can­not say how many houses are still coun­cil owned and how many have been hi­jacked, for­eignowned or le­git­i­mately sold.

Mashamba says many young girls from nearby town­ships have been taken to houses used as broth­els, and res­i­dents have had enough. While it is easy to crit­i­cise those plan­ning Fri­day’s protest, one can­not dis­pute the ex­pe­ri­ences of those who have lost young girls to il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties.

Fast-for­ward to 9.30am on Fri­day, and protesters ar­rive in num­bers at the Marabas­tad bus de­pot. The muddy lot is teem­ing with ar­moured po­lice ve­hi­cles and wa­ter tanks, and the blue lights keep com­ing.

Un­de­terred, protesters ar­rive in taxis and on foot, some bran­dish­ing axes, spears and sticks.

“The po­lice are here to pro­tect for­eign­ers who are here il­le­gally and sell drugs. These peo­ple must go home,” says one an­gry pro­tester, his face cov­ered.

Down the road out­side Bis­mil­lah Chicken, the So­ma­lis have closed shop and gath­ered.

“We do not see much po­lice pres­ence and we have been told protesters are on the way to at­tack us. Peo­ple want to fight back, but the com­mu­nity has talked; we are not go­ing to at­tack any­one,” says com­mu­nity leader Ahmed Awil.

Two hours later, protesters ar­rive across the road and po­lice stand be­tween them and the So­ma­lis, who wield pan­gas and sticks.

A po­lice he­li­copter hov­ers above the two groups, who taunt each other. Mo­ments later, a po­lice wa­ter tank starts spray­ing both sides and peo­ple scat­ter.

Later that af­ter­noon, Ahmed Cab­du­laal (36) takes City Press to a run­down house which dou­bles as a school. A large stor­age room is filled with fridges and stock from more than 30 So­mali shops around Pretoria West and At­teridgeville.

“You see, we do not sell any­thing bad, not even cig­a­rettes or alcohol,” says the fa­ther of three point­ing to cooldrinks, maize, clean­ing prod­ucts and other goods which fill the space.

“My three chil­dren have left for Jo­han­nes­burg with their mother. She phones me con­stantly, want­ing to know if I am alive. I didn’t tell them why they must go, I just said that they are go­ing to visit. We do not want to up­set them. We took the stock, so there is noth­ing to at­tack. Now there are only hu­man be­ings left to at­tack. I do not sleep at night,” he says.

On Satur­day morn­ing, the spokesper­son for the Mamelodi Con­cerned Res­i­dents’ group, Mak­goka Lek­ganyane, says the march “went well”.

“We do not as­so­ciate our­selves with oth­ers [protesters] that went and caused chaos else­where. The march has been mis­un­der­stood. We are against xeno­pho­bia. This was about calling for bet­ter bor­der con­trol and [calling on] the de­part­ment of labour to pro­tect South Africans.

“The blame here must not be with broth­ers and sis­ters from other coun­tries. No one should be at­tack­ing them. We need to hold our in­sti­tu­tions, like home af­fairs and the labour de­part­ment, ac­count­able. We must blame them for the trou­bles we have.”

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