Sitting behind security bars in his shop in McArthur Street in the Durban CBD, 36-year-old Hassan Bikorwa says he’s a sitting duck. Bikorwa, who came to South Africa from Burundi more than 13 years ago, says he has been repeatedly robbed.
“But we’re living. We can’t stop to live,” he says. “Life goes on. Maybe I’m next. You never know … We’re just waiting.”
Bikorwa is just one of a number of migrants living in constant fear in central Durban, and the shack settlements, nestled into the city’s hills and valleys.
A dramatic escalation in anti-migrant slogans and campaigning by political parties in the province has ramped up the day to day pressures on migrants.
“They come here and call you all sorts of funny things. This is how life is here. People, they hate us, but what can I do?” Bikorwa says.
Migrants in Durban have described how the newly established African Basic Movement (ABM) party has been actively spreading xenophobic views over loudspeakers in areas such as Umlazi, Inanda and Ntuzuma.
But it’s not just the ABM spreading hate. The People’s Revolutionary Movement, whose president, Nhlanhla Buthelezi, was interviewed by New Frame, has gone so far as to call for refugees to be forced into camps, a proposal first raised by Congress of the People leader Mosiuoa Lekota earlier this year.
“People should not come as they wish. The borders should be strengthened. We feel that the people coming from other countries, they are taking the jobs of the people of South Africa,” said Buthelezi. Speaking on record he made numerous grossly xenophobic statements.
But Buthelezi insists he’s not xenophobic. “No. It is not xenophobic. We say we love them, as long as they are here legally,” he said. “These are our brothers and sisters, but if you are going to make sure that the native people of this country become redundant and useless, we are not going to agree.”
Threats and attacks
The Northern Region Business Association made headlines earlier this year after it sent threatening letters to migrant-owned shops in the Inanda region, warning them to leave the area within 14 days.
Days later, some migrant-owned shops were looted and set alight. The organisation’s chairperson, Mandlenkosi Sibiya, 48, and secretary general, Mlungisi Mncube, 42, both appeared in the Ntuzuma Magistrates’ Court last month on charges of public violence after shops were damaged on 16 August.
“It is alleged that a group of people were targeting shops owned by foreigners and [proceeded to] loot, set them alight and damage them. Through our investigation, we managed to arrest two suspects after cases of public violence were opened at Inanda police station,” said KwaZulu-Natal police spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Thulani Zwane.
Sibiya was charged in connection with another case of public violence after other shops were damaged in Ntuzuma on the same day.
“People are openly preaching hatred … They don’t even hide the fact that they are xenophobic.”
Daniel Dunia, secretary general of the African Solidarity Network, attended Mncube’s court appearance and said that some of Mncube’s supporters included members of the ABM.
“I was surprised by the high support they have. The court was full, outside the courtroom was full, and many people were outside the court singing,” he said.
“People are openly preaching hatred … They don’t even hide the fact that they are xenophobic,” he said, adding there was not enough condemnation from government and other people in leadership positions to address the increase in xenophobic rhetoric.
Thembelani Ngubane, secretary general of the ABM, agreed to a sit down interview with New Frame, but when the publication arrived in Durban, he cancelled the interview and has since declined numerous requests for a telephonic interview.
The party’s website lists its four main principles, one of which states that: “We strongly believe that the influx of the foreign nationals that are scattered in this country is causing a lot of problems and difficulties, creating many challenges, for example: safety issues and opportunities of local people are in jeopardy as they have to compete with foreign nationals even in the job market [sic].”
The website goes on to make other reckless statements about migrants in South Africa.
“Xenophobia doesn’t start at the ground. It starts with the politicians who want to divide people … It’s very difficult if you have a government that claims to unify people, but you have leaders who say things to divide people.”
Following last week’s violence in Soweto, Ngubane contacted New Frame to say the party was marching to the South African Human Rights Commission to hand over a memorandum. However, the commission’s Gushwell Brooks said he was not aware of them ever arriving.
However there are mass based organisation that take very different positions, and include migrants as members and as leaders. Abahlali baseMjondolo secretary general Thapelo Mohapi said that migrants and South Africans lived together peacefully. He blamed party political leaders at national, municipal and grassroots levels for the increase in xenophobic sentiments.
“We live side by side with these people and we have no issues….Xenophobia doesn’t start at the ground. It starts with the politicians who want to divide people … It’s very difficult if you have a government that claims to unify people, but you have leaders who say things to divide people.”
And while some politicians and community leaders go around making statements to divide their constituents and turn sentiment against foreigners, it is people such as Rajabu Mwinyi, a trader originally from the Congo, who suffer at the hands of xenophobic mobs.
“I’ve been here for 15 years. It’s very difficult because the people you trust, your neighbours, become your enemy tomorrow. They look after you, and next thing they want to kill you,” he said.
Mwinyi said he opens the garage roller door to his furniture shop only halfway because of the ever-present threat. “We can’t leave the shop. If I leave, my brother stays inside. If he leaves, I stay inside.”
On 29 August, migrant-owned shops in Soweto were targeted in a spate of xenophobic attacks. The violence and looting resulted in the deaths of at least three people.
In the run-up to the violence, messages had been circulating on social media threatening strikes and violence against migrant-owned shops on the basis that they allegedly sold fake and expired goods.
Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi told reporters at a press briefing on 3 September that inspections at more than 400 small shops had delivered no proof of fake or illicit goods. But Somali shopkeepers are still worried. Another warning has been circulating on social media warning them, and the South Africans who rent spaces to them, to leave by 8 September.
The Freedom Charter declares that South Africa ‘belongs to all who live in it’. But for many migrants life in South Africa is deeply precarious, and lived in constant anxiety.