The unrest in Soweto began on 19 January in response to the death of a local boy, 14-year-old Siphiwe Mahori, who was allegedly shot by a foreign shopkeeper. It is believed that the shopkeeper, Somalian national Senosi Yusuf, shot Mahori after he and a group tried to rob the shopkeeper’s store in SnakePark. This incident sparked a violent response from the community, who then went on a rampage where foreign-owned shops were targeted and looted. The conflict in Soweto quickly spread to surrounding townships throughout Gauteng, and incidents of foreign-owned shops being looted increased considerably. Some of the other affected areas include Atteridgeville, Diepsloot and Kagiso.
Incidents of looting and malicious damage to property have been reported in the affected communities, as well as cases of incitement of violence against foreign national shopkeepers and their families. This has led to many foreign nationals fleeing the affected areas and closing down their shops. Besides the death of Mahori, a number of other casualties have been reported since the start of the unrest. On 21 January, The Star reported the death of Nhlanhla Monareng, a 19-year-old who was shot in Naledi and declared dead upon arrival at a nearby hospital. It is alleged that Monareng was killed after police fired shots at a gathering of people outside a Pakistani-owned shop in Naledi. It is believed that Monareng was a bystander.
The Star also reported the death of Malawian shopkeeper Dan Mokwena who was attacked and killed in his shop in the early hours of the same morning. A baby also died in the unrest after being trampled to death by a fleeing crowd on 23 January. In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, Patricia Erasmus, an attorney from Lawyers for Human Rights, reported that there had been a contrast in how police responded to the unrest. In general, the work of local police was successful in restoring calm and quelling many of the attacks across Gauteng. Police were also able to make over 120 arrests during this period of unrest.
The concern for Erasmus, however, was the other side of the coin. Reports have been made that some police officers stood by and did nothing to prevent the violence and looting that occurred. City Press published a similar story on 25 January titled “Cops told us to loot” detailing how certain law enforcement officers, some of whom were exposed on social media videos, actively stole goods from looted foreign-owned shops, as well as assisting other looters with their raiding. In a statement released by police spokesperson Solomon Makgale, the police acknowledged one such case where “appropriate action” was taken in response to the claim.
By definition, xenophobia is an intense dislike or fear of foreigners which is linked to violent behaviour against foreign nationals. The recent unrest across Gauteng, however, has not been officially labelled as xenophobic. City Press has reported that both the Gauteng police commissioner, Joel Mothiba, and the MEC for community safety in the province, Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane, have unanimously agreed that the instances across Gauteng were “criminal and not xenophobic” acts.
Various human rights groups, however, disagree with this assessment and have labeled the recent violence and chaos as acts of xenophobia. Human rights groups have strongly condemned the actions of looters and perpetrators of violence involved in the unrest. The Lawyers for Human Rights group expressed their shock and disappointment at the “blatant disregard for human life in these attacks” in a recent statement.
UP’s Centre for Human Rights also recently released a statement where the centre expressed its “serious displeasure” and “rejection of xenophobia” in light of the recent attacks across Gauteng. Both groups have acknowledged these attacks as xenophobic in nature and have called for a speedy end to the violence.
Yusuf, who was charged for killing Mahori last month, is currently on trial in the Protea magistrate’s court. Over 90 people, including children, are currently being processed through the court and face charges of public violence and possession of stolen property. Makgale has also confirmed that 83 people have already appeared in the Protea magistrate’s court, and that six children who were involved were released into the custody of their parents.
In their statement, the Centre for Human Rights strongly urged all South Africans to “live the spirit of ubuntu – the essence of being human – which is fundamental to our coexistence as equal human beings living in an open, free and democratic country.”
Illustration: Jaco Stroebel