Amissa Ally and her husband’s livelihoods depended on the small shop they owned together. The couple mostly sold amagwinya (vetkoek) at Taxi City in Richards Bay. Although they barely made enough to cover their expenses every month, they were proud of what they had.
Ally, 36, had recently started working on Sundays because no one else was selling cheap food at the taxi rank on this day. It was an opportunity to make enough money to ensure they could pay rent and buy food for their children.
But on Thursday 25 July, Ally stood in the entrance of her small shop built out of corrugated iron and watched as chaos ensued around her. Residents of Richards Bay, led by taxi drivers from the rank, pursued the alleged killers of a well-known bus driver. Ally had no idea that hours later, she would be forced to abandon her shop and run for her life.
The same group who had earlier pursued the alleged killers later turned against her and other migrant and refugee-owned businesses at the taxi rank.
Ally’s shop was ransacked and torched as chaos descended on the central business district (CBD) in Richards Bay on the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal. More than a dozen other migrant-owned shops, including spazas and hair salons, were destroyed at the rank, forcing migrants to flee the area.
Days later, broken plates and cups lay scattered between the burnt-out corrugated iron sheets and ash of what used to be Ally’s shop.
“It is the end of my life. I don’t know how we are going to survive this,” said a tearful Ally. She was sitting on a couch next to her husband Eyenga, 39, their three children and her mother. The family rent two rooms in a house shared by two other families in a suburb about 5km from the CBD.
“We were trying to survive with that restaurant. But now we don’t know what to do. The situation is very bad,” she said. Ally and her husband fled Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and sought refuge in South Africa more than 10 years ago.
Ally said her family was living in fear despite relative calm being restored to the area. “This is the second time. But the first time it was not terrible like this time. They keep promising us every day ‘one day we are going to beat you’. Every day. But we keep working every day,” she said.
“The future is not looking good for me. Because even at my house they keep scaring me. The mother of the house [the landlady], she was calling me and said someone called her and said there were people coming to burn the house. I’m scared. Too much.”
The KwaZulu-Natal police were emphatic that the violence in the Richards Bay CBD, during which two people were murdered, was not xenophobic in nature. “This is NOT xenophobia,” wrote provincial police spokesperson Captain Nqobile Gwala in an email.
“[The deceased] were allegedly attacked after they stabbed a bus driver. It has nothing to do with people’s nationality, it is just a criminal matter that is under investigation,” she said.
Gwala said the community was enraged by the murder of a 55-year-old bus driver. Residents blamed his murder on a group of young men living in a park opposite the taxi rank, accusing them of being drug users, harassing commuters and robbing them.
These men are known as “paras”, short for parasites, and after the body of the bus driver was found that Thursday morning, the residents decided enough was enough. They made the call to mete out their own justice.
However, two of the men caught up in the attacks were Tanzanian, according to community leader Ibrahim Yussuf. He said one Tanzanian man was killed and another was still in a critical condition in hospital.
“No, they are not criminals. They had just arrived from Durban. They did not know anything. In order to survive, they were standing outside with trolleys and helping customers carry their luggage to the taxis,” said Yussuf.
“People were taking chances and when they saw they were Tanzanian, they hit them,” he said. “They decided to hit anyone who was around there. They then decided to hit the Congolese and Burundians as well.”
Caught on camera
Yussuf declined to meet in person, preferring to speak over the phone. He said a group of Tanzanians and other migrants had fled the Richards Bay CBD and were staying “in the bush”, fearing for their lives.
A senior figure at the taxi rank, who asked to remain anonymous, insisted that the South African residents of Richards Bay were “just dealing with the paras. This is not a xenophobia.”
He said the shops that were targeted were hiding drugs to sell, or involved with drug dealers in some way. When told about Amissa Ally and her family’s plight, he shrugged and said: “There is no way to separate them.
“The police don’t do anything when we call them. We have had enough and decided to take justice into our own hands,” he said. “We are waiting for more people to come. This strike will continue.”
In a video being circulated by some from the area, people can be seen taking turns to kick and hit two men in front of a Boxer supermarket, just metres away from Ally’s shop.
One of the men lies lifelessly on the ground as a man stomps on his head. Another man throws an object at his face, while the second, visibly dazed man tries to sit up. He is hit on the back with a wooden stick with people shouting “Shaya (beat them)” before the video ends abruptly.
Association by language
Gwala has been unwilling or unable to identify the deceased men, only confirming their deaths. She said cases of murder and attempted murder were being investigated. Gwala failed to answer questions regarding allegations that the police failed to act swiftly, failed to protect the migrants being targeted and prevented some migrants from opening cases at the police station.
Mmindje “Steven” Kabakilwa, 44, who represents the Congolese and Burundian refugees in Richards Bay, blamed the widespread attacks and looting of migrant and refugee-owned shops on confusion and a misunderstanding around language.
He confirmed that two of the men were Tanzanian and spoke Kiswahili, like many of the Congolese refugees living in Richards Bay.
“[The taxi drivers] started coming to us and said, ‘Guys, these paras, they smoke, they sell all these substances and who is the supplier of all those things. Most of these guys, they speak your languages.’ Because among those paras there are some from Tanzania and so forth. There are also Zulus and locals,” said Kabakilwa.
He said the mob insisted on searching all the migrants and refugees and their shops. “They ask you to stand up, you stand up. They start searching you and take whatever you have in your pocket. You won’t get it back. Then they start beating you. The rest of the people will go, ‘Shaya.’
“Immediately, the entire rank came to this part of the rank, beating people as if it was a well-planned attack,” he said. “They finished beating us, we ran away and came back and they started burning our containers. Buying petrol, pouring on the containers and making sure they all get burned down. Just our containers,” he said.
“Some people are coming and saying this is not xenophobic attacks, this is just some criminality and they are not targeting people. No, we are quite clear in our mind, we were being targeted,” Kabakilwa said.
Yasmin Rajah, the director of Refugee Social Services at the Diakonia Centre in Durban, has condemned the attacks. “The consequences as we see them is that already traumatised people tend to experience the violence more severely because they have experienced this before.
“Also, most are making a living and have no reserve to absorb losses. Therefore it is much more difficult for them to re-establish themselves,” she said. “Communities are generally frustrated by crime and with a lack of action by the SAPS [South African Police Service] and others in the justice system, it is easier to think that justice is being done when a foreigner is presumed to be the perpetrator because they are easily identifiable and I suppose easy targets.”
When Emmanuel Vincent, 29, returned to the burnt-out shell of the blue container in which he used to cut hair at the taxi rank, the South African woman who sells food from the shop next door embraced him. Her shop, built out of wood, is about half a metre from Vincent’s shop, “proving” to Vincent and Kabakilwa that migrant and refugee-owned shops were specifically targeted.
Nigerians Promise Ozoude Ogbonna, 28, and Mwachukwa Eyemaka, who is in his 30s, whose restaurant was ransacked and vandalised, said it was their only way to survive. “I can’t eat. We are being stranded. We don’t have anything to do now,” said Ogbonna.
Eyemaka added: “I don’t know how people from somewhere else can come and accuse me of selling drugs and take my stuff. We run a restaurant.
“When you are eating food, can you dish drugs as well? Do we have drugs in the microwave? Do we have drugs in the gas cooker? Do we have drugs in the television, my camera. Is that drugs?” an exasperated Eyemaka asked.
“They should learn to know that not everyone from Nigeria is a drug dealer. Some are innocent,” he said.