Addressing Xenophobia in Nyanga and Khayelitsha Businesses

On November 5 2011, I attended a stakeholder meeting at Luyolo Community Hall organised by SAPS Phillipi East, and led by Nyanga SAPS Cluster. In attendance were representatives from Department of Human Settlements, Department of Social Services, South African Police Services, Department of Community Safety, the Human Rights Commission, UNHCR, Peninsula Business Forum, Somalia Retailers Association, Sonke Gender Justice and ARESTA.

One meeting of many

The chairperson Major General Roberts informed the meeting that this was the third meeting this year attempting to bring about a solution to the issues presented to SAPS as serious threats to the community. In his presentation he cited the following as areas of threats:

  • Influx of business people into the areas of Nyanga and Khayelitsha
  • No control of influx of business people, as 95% of shop owners are foreign nationals who do not hire local people for job creation
  • The 2008 agreement is not respected. The agreement resolved that people opening shops would start to build community structures and would be required to hire local people
  • Demand for business permits for all
  • There are no laws about operating hours, and some trade 24 hours a day which increases levels of crime
  • Consultants from outside renting houses in these areas
  • Consultants owning houses and later renting them to foreign nationals
  • Arrest of shop owners for various crimes
  • The promise of Job creation without following through
  • No adherence to or enforcement of laws
  • Language barrier between South Africans, including the police, and foreign nationals
  • Lack of involvement of other departments
  • Conflict within between locals and foreign nationals; locals are jealous because business for many foreigners is blossoming

The meeting gave an opportunity to the departments to present their synopsis of the situation and later engage with the rest of the participants. A resolution was taken that we allow people to express themselves in their vernacular but keep the English as medium of deliberations.

Staying focused…

The Department of Human Settlements presented on their mandate and this brought a lot of clarity-seeking questions from the floor, many of which were not directly related to the issues at hand. As a Sonke staff member I advised the meeting and the chairperson to keep the meeting focused on the threats presented and insist that they not downplay the issues raised, as they were of great importance. I therefore recommended that the presenter from the Department of Housing call a separate meeting as his presentation elicited high interest to the people although it was not all relevant to the proposed topic at hand. The meeting took this suggestion very positively.

The next presenter who really brought the facts home was Bianca Valentine from the Human Rights Commission (HRC). Her presentation was on their three areas of operation, namely, promotion of human rights, monitoring, and mediation. One local business person raised a heated debate that brought tempers high in the meeting. He said that 95% of shops in the townships are owned by foreign nationals, in particular, Somalis, and local shop owners cannot match their pricing as they are very cheap and sell junk food to the community. He felt that this is not benefitting the community whatsoever as the locals are roaming around without employment, sitting at the street corners and eventually committing crime. HRC’s response was that their role and mandate was limited as they are called to mediate between parties or groupings and also explain the human rights framework to all affected.

Lack of involvement from City of Cape Town

Sonke then posed a question to the chairperson asking if it is not HRC’s mandate to resolve this issue, who is responsible? The HRC was clear to say the City of Cape Town had all the responsibility vested in them. Sonke made a follow-up point to say that the same City had been invited to all the meetings and they not responded to any of the invitations. We asked ourselves what we can do to make sure that they are part of these discussions going forward. SAPS then said they will take it upon themselves to make sure that the minute reaches to relevant people.

Xenophobia, ignorance – and returning the favour

During the meeting one person from a local business made a very serious attack on foreign nationals claiming that refugees, in his understanding are destitute persons, and he cannot understand refugees that are walking with R50,000 in their pockets and yet claim to be refugees. Another elderly person stood up saying the only solution was that foreign nationals must pack and go by December. They said that the government is failing people as there are many refugees in SA who are taking our land day by day.

For a while there was a heavy tension in the meeting. In my Sonke capacity I stood up and said that the chairperson cannot allow a situation where a person is fuelling fire and goes unchallenged. I made it clear that foreign nationals are going nowhere! Sadly South Africans are the last ones to say that this must come to an end. People must learn to respect others and make an effort to understand why refugees are here, and what the laws and obligations are for our government and for us as citizens concerning these issues. As it turned out, one of the business people in the room was a man I knew had been an ANC exile in Lesotho, Zambia, and later in Uganda and I had spent spent time with him in Lesotho and Zambia. I pointed this out and said I couldn’t understand that how it could be that we are not keen to return the favour to others.

There was jubilance and clapping of hands in the meeting and UNCHR also took the platform and addressed the crowd on their role. Patrick from UNHCR shared his personal story of witnessing many South Africans seeking help in Uganda, his home country. He said he was saddened to hear people calling for harassment of foreign nationals. He even cited the Rwanda massacre – that it started from one person planting seeds of hate, and later masses were killed. He said that this has to stop.

The meeting adjourned for lunch after which I unfortunately had to leave. I was informed that later, the tension resurfaced to the extent that the major general had to call an old man to order and remind him that everything said in the meeting was taped. He made it clear to him that if anything happens in December he will be the first to visited by the police. The man was instigating violence against foreign nationals, insisting that they must leave now – or else…

In sum, the meeting, while positive in its efforts to take into account the opinions of a wide group of parties, was missing one of the key stakeholders, the City of Cape Town. Until the situation receives careful and dedicated attention from the City, there is a limited amount of change that can happen and work that can be done.