‘They are my children’: Sowetans stand by foreigners
Desperate residents get foreign shop owners to safety, plead for peace as deadly violence spreads
A group of Soweto residents rallied around their foreign shopkeeper friends on Thursday, trying their utmost to protect them from becoming targets of the deadly violence that flared up in Gauteng’s biggest township this week.
While violence against foreign shop owners bubbled to the surface again on Wednesday, leaving at least three people dead, some Soweto residents pleaded for peace – for themselves and their foreign friends.
“I do get scared because they threaten to burn our houses,” said Diepkloof resident Sophie Mashile, who rented out a portion of her yard to Somalis.
They had erected a two-room structure in the front of her yard. The front was used as a shop, while they slept in the other room.But on Thursday, a day after the deadly looting, residents were hurriedly trying to get their Somali friends to safety. Mashile helped them pack their belongings, and she was joined by several other residents who loaded crates and boxes into a van and taxi waiting to take them away from their home of the past 15 years, to a safer place.
“When the looting started I told them to close shop,” said Mashile.But unlike the disastrous scenes that unfolded in other parts of the township, the group of young men who had operated their business from her premises were kept safe.
“The community in Zone 6 was keeping watch so that if anything happens, they can assist them. Today, they decided to move their things because they saw what happened yesterday,” she said.
The deadly looting came a day after the Health ministry announced it was looking into allegations and complaints it had received that some of the shops were selling fake or expired goods.
Pictures and videos of the allegedly fake goods have been doing the rounds on social media. Law enforcement authorities have conducted raids in some areas to seize goods for testing.
On Wednesday, in the White City section on the other side of the township, a man was shot dead amid the looting.He was allegedly a paying customer who was caught in the crossfire when looters barged into a shop.
The shop owner was said to have fired a shot at the looters but hit the young customer in the chest. He stumbled outside the shop and died a few metres away.Following his death, more shops were looted with at least two other people reportedly killed.
On Thursday a Soweto taxi driver, who was among the crowds helping foreigners move, said he blamed on the government – that it should have come out with verified facts instead of allegations.Mashile agreed: “What I don’t get is, since they [the community] say these people are selling expired goods ... We don’t agree with that. But why do they take these expired goods? What are they going to do with these things? Why don’t they just spill it or destroy it to show that they are against these products.”She said the men who had run the spaza shop from her yard had been there for 15 years. She had never heard any complaints about the quality of their food, neither did she believe allegations that some of them manufactured their own food and simply put them in mainstream packaging.
“I used to have a van. They used to borrow my van to go and buy stock in Devland, so I don’t know,” she said.
Asked how she felt about the chaos that had unfolded, she said: “I feel heartbroken because they are also human. If these allegations against them are true, why were they not properly told that they are no longer wanted in South Africa and they should go, instead of beating and hurting them and taking their things?“We should have acted only if they did not listen [about leaving]. I feel we are giving a bad name to our country,” she said.
“I take them as my children. That is why this hurts,” she said.
Armed police watched as the foreigners packed their belongings, while the only residents who arrived were there to lend a helping hand.
“Will we see you again, John,” one resident shouted to a foreigner as he walked towards Mashile, handing back her keys.
“I will be back,” he said, smiling at them as he boarded the van filled with their goods.