Business Day, 28 May 2008

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Rumours of imminent xenophobic attacks in many parts of Johannesburg were circulating at the weekend, creating a mill of speculation and fear. People in areas all over Gauteng were “warned” that violence “would be coming”. On Friday evening I received an SMS: “Warning!! Confirmed by the Human Rights Commission: xenophobic attacks in Yeoville this weekend. Be safe!” In the rational part of my mind I thought: Oh please. If people really wanted to attack, would they warn us first? But in the irrational part of my mind, I was already picturing myself with my bread knife, facing down a mob. Nothing happened like that in Yeoville at the weekend. It appears my SMS was not the only one doing the rounds; variations were all over. A mysterious fax, with no return number, was sent to the National Social Service and Development Forum, a Johannesburg-based nongovernmental organisation, on Thursday, warning of “a potential weekend of violence”. It said the “‘xenophobia’ lunatics” would be going “house to house” all through the weekend, and spoke of plans to rape women married to foreigners. The forum said on its website: “We can only hope this is merely a panic-mongering tactic and not a real indication of what fellow South Africans think, let alone plan to do.” It referred the matter to the police, and were told the police had received the fax as well. The origin of these communications is unknown, so it is hard to determine how seriously they should be taken. But the approach of the police seems to be to take each piece of news seriously. Police spokesman Govindsamy Mariemuthoo says “there are a lot of rumours going around”. The police are playing it safe, he says, making sure they are ready for anything. Mariemuthoo says the intelligence is coming mostly from members of the public. But the police are also working on discovering the sources of these communications. There were military vehicles in Yeoville and neighbouring Observatory on Saturday night. Last week, another rumour emerged that shop fronts in Brixton High Street had been smashed and a leaflet had been circulating that foreigners had better get out now. But the police in Brixton knew nothing about it; nor did the Brixton Forum, a residents’ organisation; Brixton councillor Cindy Grobbelaar; and High Street shop owners. Stories of similar pamphlets have come from Pretoria. Nyasha Samuriwo, a Zimbabwean attorney at the law firm Bowman Gilfillan, says “everyone is nervous”. Many of her professional friends who have Zimbabwean number plates have stopped driving their cars. One friend was being “chirped by petrol attendants”. Samuriwo coaches matric students in English at a college in Soweto at the weekends. She says she did not go this past weekend as she “was scared”. “In a way, it’s kind of irrational, because no one has been to Soweto really. But you don’t really know what the mood is.” Duncan Breen of the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in SA, says even where people do not have an intention to commit violent acts, they may make statements like “we are coming for you next” as an exercise of power, to make people feel uncomfortable. Talla Niang, a Senegalese musician and trader at the Rosebank craft market, received the same SMS as me. But Niang says he and most traders at the market do not really fear attacks in the area. Everyone has been coming to work, even though they take public transport. Most of the people who live in Yeoville, Berea and Hillbrow are foreigners, Niang reasons, so it is unlikely that any attacks would happen from within these communities. Niang says he is a member of the African Diaspora Forum, which has been liaising with the Jeppe police. He says the police have been very responsive to their concerns. It is difficult to determine the extent to which these warnings affect people. It varies from person to person. But for those closest to the violence — people who live in informal settlements, or those who have been victims of violence before in their own countries — the rumours, whispers and cackles of mischievous people seem to have a heightened effect. The violence of civil war is within the living memory of most Mozambicans. Since the attacks started two weeks ago, the Mozambican borders have been jammed with people trying to get home. Between 20000 and 26000 Mozambicans living in SA have already returned to their country. Many of those interviewed have not experienced violence themselves, but are going home anyway, to be on the safe side. Tucked into a nook in the wall of the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg, Adam Momadi is embroidering black wool into a piece of a mielie-meal sack. He’s making a design of a zebra. Momadi is an artist. He came from his hometown in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province to sell his work in SA . He is an economic migrant; he came because his cousin told him there “was a lot of money here, maybe people would buy my art”. He usually makes R300-R400 a week selling his work on a street corner in Florida, west of Johannesburg. But he hasn’t left the church since the wave of violence started two weeks ago in Alexandra. “My friend was hit with a knife, he was cut, I don’t know if he is alive or dead.” Momadi wants to go home, but has not sold any work since he has been stuck inside the church. He knows Florida has not been targeted, but it doesn’t matter. “I’m too scared,” he says. And that is no rumour.