Since the 1980s, when it became a neighbourhood for all races in defiance of segregation, Yeoville has been a grand experiment in what South Africa can be. In the decades since the end of formal apartheid, that experiment has been distinctly pan-African. For all its struggles, the neighbourhood has become a cosmopolitan beacon with a strong tradition of warding off the ever more frequent xenophobic waves engulfing Johannesburg.
The Yeoville African Market, parts of which were gutted by a fire in the early hours of 21 June, is one of the cornerstones of the Yeoville experiment. The market, where one is as likely to hear conversations happening in isiZulu or French as in English or Hausa, takes up a city block between Raleigh, Bedford, Hunter and Cavendish streets. On the corner of Raleigh and Bedford, where the flames were the worst, grocers were offering cut prices on seasonal avocado and citrus before their stores were gutted. Further along Raleigh, shops stocked fatally hot chillies, cassava breads, dried fish and crunchy plantain chips.
Around the corner, on Cavendish, shoppers could pick up bargain fresh fish from the back of a bakkie on weekend mornings or get a haircut at one of the many barbers and hairdressers. And a string of cobblers and tailors – whose morning debates on football and continental politics are among the market’s most robust – make up the northern edge on Hunter street.
Many of the market’s salons and sewing shops were untouched by the fire that ravaged the businesses and livelihoods of the grocers selling fresh fruit and vegetables along Raleigh and Bedford streets.
Those who lost their stalls and all the stock inside them have been left wondering how they will pay demanding landlords at the fast-approaching end of the month, or more urgently, worrying about how they will feed their partners and children.
“I have three kids. My husband doesn’t work, and I have a nephew that I take care of. I pay rent. I pay school fees. I pay groceries,” said Mayamba Ndongala, 41, who has been selling Congolese staples such as cassava and plantain at the market for the past four years.
“Since that day, when they woke me up, I didn’t sleep until now. I can’t sleep because I don’t know how to survive. What is my life now?” Ndongala asked on the Raleigh Street pavement where, on 22 June, many unaffected traders were still carrying out their business.
Lost in the fire
Near to where Ndongala used to sell fresh produce, South African George Khoza, 62, was busy stripping nails from salvaged pieces of wood to build himself a small table from which to sell fresh fruit on the pavement. He lost a week’s worth of stock in the fire and was hoping to start trading again as soon as possible.
“I’ve been here since the beginning of the market in 1998,” said Khoza, while taking a break from removing the nails with a crowbar. “Two weeks now we have problems with Dudula. They came and said they want the market. If they can’t get the market, they will set fire.”
Shopkeepers widely agreed that the fire was started by members of vigilante group Operation Dudula, which has been threatening migrants in various parts of the country. Its leader, Nhlanhla “Lux” Mohlauli, has been arrested previously on several charges, including housebreaking and malicious damage to property relating to the group’s activities.
Members of Operation Dudula marched on the Yeoville Market on 13 June to intimidate migrant business owners and demand that their shops be handed over to South Africans.
Local activists and EFF members who were signing up members on Raleigh Street confronted the Dudula group when it arrived at the market. One activist, who did not want to be named, said members of the vigilante group threatened to burn down the market if it was not handed over to them.
Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia, a group of anti-prejudice organisations, said it views the destruction “as a deliberate and violent act of arson”.
“The fire comes in the wake of reports of threats by supporters of Operation Dudula to attack the market last week. The xenophobic organisation found itself outnumbered by people standing by to defend stallholders and left without achieving their stated aim of closing down the market. Subsequently, threats were made, including that the market would be burned down,” the group said.
“Many of these stallholders have now tragically lost everything and are left in despair and in debt. These are among the most vulnerable of people in our society, working-class men and women whose survival depends on the meagre earnings that are made selling goods on the market in Yeoville.”
‘What must I do now?’
Many of the traders who lost their livelihoods and incomes in the blaze now face pressure from microlenders. Andrew Nwachukwu, 38, originally from Nigeria, has been selling Nigerian food at the Yeoville Market for the past five years.
“My family, we must eat. I lost a lot, so much, I can’t tell you,” Nwachukwu said, standing near the charred remains of his shop. “I sell food here, but I also ship in and people come buy stock from me. Some people already paid me. What must I do now?”
Nwachukwu said he was woken up shortly after midnight on Monday by a panicked phone call telling him the market was on fire. “It was so bad,” he said. “The people we work with here are all fine. We have no problem. As long as you’re African, it’s fine to work here. But last week they came, they say they will burn the place. They threatened us and then on Monday the market burned.”
Operation Dudula’s Yeoville branch secretary Yoliswa Magwebu denied that the vigilante group was behind the fire at the market. “No, Operation Dudula can’t do that. We also need the market,” she said, adding that she “heard that somebody left a stove on”.
The cause of the fire could not be determined because of the “extent of damage”, according to City of Johannesburg emergency services spokesperson Nana Radebe-Kgiba.
Gauteng police spokesperson Captain Mavela Masondo said the police have opened an inquiry and are investigating, but they could not confirm if they were investigating arson.