Magazine article New African

Xenophobia South Africa's Lingering Timebomb: As the National Hero Who Embodies Peace and Reconciliation in South Africa Remained Critically Ill, the Ugly Head of Xenophobic Attacks against Foreigners in South Africa Once Again Reared Its Head. Our Johannesburg Correspondent Pusch Commey Reports on Recent Attacks

Magazine article New African

Xenophobia South Africa's Lingering Timebomb: As the National Hero Who Embodies Peace and Reconciliation in South Africa Remained Critically Ill, the Ugly Head of Xenophobic Attacks against Foreigners in South Africa Once Again Reared Its Head. Our Johannesburg Correspondent Pusch Commey Reports on Recent Attacks

Article excerpt

IT ALL BEGAN WITH A SHOOTING ON A RATHER PEACEFUL Sunday evening. Bishar Isaak, a Somalian national, had had enough. He fled his troubled homeland in 2001, to what he believed was the land of peace and opportunity--South Africa. He left his wife and children behind in Somalia to seek a better life for himself and his family. It was not smooth sailing.

He had to go through several indignities to obtain an asylum seekers' permit which he had to renew every 3 months. After 4 years he was formally recognised as a refugee and given a maroon identity booklet. His refugee status had to be renewed every two years until 2011, when he qualified for permanent residence. He hoped to naturalise as a citizen in 2015. South Africa was now home.

It had been a long and hard road. He had to survive by tapping into the industrious Somalian community in the suburb of Mayfair in Johannesburg which specialises in retail. He worked long hours as a shop assistant for years. His family, which has no status in South Africa, visited him occasionally. He sent money home from time to time to sustain them.

In 2007, backed by his boss, he managed to open a shop in Diepsloot, one of the several sprawling, desperately poor informal settlements in Johannesburg. He paid rental to locals.

When xenophobic violence first broke out in 2008 across South Africa, foreign-owned shops were one of the main targets. Isaak's shop came under attack then and was looted clean of all its contents. He lost his livelihood, but he did not give up. He had to start all over again. With help from the Somalian community he rented vacant land and built two shops. Soon he was employing five people. The police community forum recognised his contribution to the community when he helped build a community centre. He was given a certificate of good standing by the station commander.

In between, the local business community threatened him with violence, posting notices at his shop that he must close down or face unspecified action. He was resilient and resolute and stood his ground.

Isaak became a target of criminal gangs. On two occasions armed men entered his shop and robbed him of his earnings. They tortured him and called him makwerekwere, a pejorative term for foreigners. He was left with stab wounds on his head and bruises on his face. He did not bother to report the matter to the police, though the station was about 200 metres away. Nothing was going to happen. Besides, he was scared that if he did, these robbers, who were part of the community, would kill him. So he took it in his stride.

As recently as November 2012, two men armed with pistols came again to his shop. This time he was ready for them. He had gone for a shooting course at a shooting academy, qualified, and had been granted a firearm licence. He then acquired a firearm to protect himself.

His assailants came at 8pm when the day's earnings had been counted and the shop was about to close. They came pointing a firearm at him screaming for his money. He took out his firearm and fired warning shots. They fled. This time he reported the matter to the police, but nothing happened.

But on that fateful Sunday night on 23 May 2013, six men in a pick-up truck (bakkie) came to his shop. Two of them entered with firearms pointed at him. He was quick to the draw. He fired shots at them. One of them fell. The others ran out and returned with a mob, looting and ransacking his shop.

There was a police van nearby. It did nothing to stop the looters. Instead he was promptly arrested and taken into custody, while the looting continued. He saw some of the loot being loaded into the truck of the robbers.

What was to follow was widespread looting of all foreign-owned shops in Diepsloot. No South African-owned shop was touched. Soon the looting of foreign-owned shops (Somalian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi) had spread around the country as far afield as Port Elizabeth, some 1,000 kilometres away. …

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