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Soweto — a loota continua

“It is the men and women in our church pews who are either burning down businesses owned by foreigners or who are made to consume fake and expired foods sold by foreigners.”  This is the message delivered by Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya as he investigates the latest flood of looting in the Gauteng Province.

The tension between South African locals and traders from the Horn of Africa and the Asian sub-continent, is a powder keg waiting to explode. And when it does, there will be tears and gnashing of teeth across the country and the world.

This week it was the turn of Soweto residents to release their pent-up frustrations of the unrealised promises of the post-1994 state, by looting the shops owned by foreign nationals.

Within hours the looting had spread to townships more than 60km on the other side of Johannesburg with Daveyton residents also attacking the same category of businesses.

This is a far too regular occurrence in South Africa. Foreign shopkeepers in the traditionally black suburbs and rural villages of South Africa live with the expectation that sooner or later it will happen to them or someone they know.

Despite this predictability, the South African state seems to have neither the intelligence to preempt nor the necessary will to stop it when it happens.

On average, South Africans are divided between those who want the foreigners out and those who are appalled by what they see. These attacks are either xenophobic in general or more specifically Afrophobic because of their tendency to spare special hate for African foreigners.

The South African government needs to be a little more proactive than it has been. It needs to hear out the cries of poor locals in business and of consumers who have grievances with how foreign traders do business.

It must do this as it also protects the interests of big businesses operating in foreign countries that could be harmed by the image of South Africa as an anti-African state. South African businesses are happy to rake in profits from foreign countries but aren't rushing to intervene when citizens of these lands are being seriously harmed, to the point of death.

Thirdly, it must abide by the Constitutional framework that guarantees the rights of everyone regardless of whether they are local or foreign.

From the foregoing, it is obvious from the most cursory glance at the issue that we do not have a xenophobia nor a bad quality product problem as such. We have a governance problem.

Like the allegations of foreigners recruiting, sometimes kidnapping young women and turning them into sex slaves, complaints about foreigners selling either fake or expired goods are not new.

It is important to clarify here that noting that a complaint exists does not necessarily mean endorsing the truthfulness of the claim.

It is however the duty of the state, through its various agencies, to verify the claims made by citizens and either enforce the law where this is required or reassure citizens that the complaints have no merit.

The South African state has instead chosen the highbrow road. It has opted to dismiss the lived experience of South Africans on the basis that they have not compiled empirical evidence on the subjects in contention.

Left to their own devices – again – the most marginalised in society have opted to do what has in the past guaranteed them the attention of those elites: burn something down, loot and destroy.

As it always happens, people die – like the three killed in Soweto this week.

And true to form political elites have responded; albeit belatedly and with dubious motives.

The mayor of Ekurhuleni, Mzwandile Masina this week went out with a team comprising various law enforcement and health regulation professionals targeting and closing down shops within the East Rand municipality boundaries.

By Thursday, 30 August 2018, three shops had been closed and more were expected to follow.

Meanwhile, in parts of Soweto, foreign-owned shops are counting the cost of their losses after their shops of various sizes including spaza (tuckshop), small and at least one supermarket, were raided and looted until they were cleaned out.

Tuck shop looted and destroyed in Soweto, 30 August 2018.

Many shops are closed but some are resisting this measure by relying even more on the heavy-steel-prison-style-bars fortification of their shops than in the ability of law enforcement agencies to come to their aid should the need arise.

Scriptures are replete with how the faithful should treat and interact with foreign nationals.

The Prophet Jeremiah told the Israelites: “Thus says the Lord…Do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jeremiah 22:3)

Deuteronomy 27:19 repeats the same point but this time with consequences for those who do not obey. “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless and the widow”.

While it is true that there are various agencies within the Church that pay attention to the plight of the refugees and immigrants such as the Jesuit Refugee Services, it is obvious from the ease and frequency of violence against foreigners erupts, that the Christian counsel on how to engage with foreigners has not taken root or has been interrupted by other things.

It is the duty of a caring church to find out what this interruption is, formulate ways of overcoming it and influence those who have the power to correct the wrongs to do so.

The Church and the broader religious community (not just Christian) has a prophetic mission to build the bridges that lead to dialogue between two sets of communities feeling unprotected and unheard by the state.

Foreign shop owners shut their spaza shops for fear of looting and violence in Soweto.

It is the men and women in the church pews who are either burning down businesses owned by those who arrived here on foreign passports, or who are made to consume fake and expired foods sold by foreigners. Either way, it is the church’s business to get involved.

The binary position adopted in thinking that locals/foreigners are good or bad is unhelpful. The either/or approach is proving itself to be a dismal failure again and again.

There is more to the danger that lurks; for all that cannot be averted by dismissing those who hold a different view: either as incorrigible xenophobes or bleeding heart liberals.

Images: Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya for Spotlight.Africa

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.