SOWETO, South Africa — Siphiwe Mahori’s grieving parents sit on the floor of their tiny brick home in Snake Park, a ramshackle Soweto neighborhood, hands clasped with visitors who might be considered the enemy by some people here.
Siphiwe, just 14 years old, was shot dead last week after a Somali shop owner fired into a crowd that he feared was trying to attack and rob his shop. Anger over the young teenager’s death spread like a wildfire, from Snake Park through Soweto — known to many as the cradle of the anti-apartheid movement — to other townships around Johannesburg.
In the days that followed, more than 120 small shops were looted, nearly all run by foreigners — Somalis, Ethiopians, Malawians, Bangladeshis. Mobs of looters smashed holes in walls and broke through roofs to get inside. Five people died. There are accounts of police standing by and watching; one officer was caught on video taking part in the looting.
Amir Sheikh, a Somali community leader in Johannesburg, didn’t know his fellow countryman who killed Siphiwe. But he heard the Mahori family was struggling to pay for their son’s funeral, and on Tuesday came calling with a donation from the Somali Community Board: 20,000 rand (around $1,750), in crisp new notes.
“Ubuntu — that's why we came to assist you, so that your son has a fitting burial,” Sheikh told Siphiwe’s father, Daniel Mahori, referring to the African principle of shared humanity. “Thank you very much for accepting us today. God bless you.”
Daniel Mahori shook Sheikh’s hand deeply: “I was not expecting the kind of the help that you have provided.”
“I am very happy that they came,” Mahori said. “They are not the direct people who did this. They are showing nothing but humanity and I am very happy for that.”
As his visitors left, Mahori spoke with touching forgiveness: “He was just protecting himself, the shop owner. It was unfortunate that there were passerby and the bullet happened to hit. The shop owner had the right to protect himself.”
After a tense week of violence, it was a moment of reconciliation and peace. But throughout Soweto, many “spaza shops,” as these small grocery stores are known, remain shuttered, and their foreign owners have been warned not to return yet for fear of further attacks.
Criminality or xenophobia
The recent spate of looting in Soweto has reignited fears in South Africa of the out-of-control xenophobic violence that in 2008 left more than 60 people dead and 100,000 displaced. At that time, many of the people targeted were poor Zimbabwean and Mozambican migrants.
Attacks on foreigners, mainly migrants from other African countries, have continued since then but draw little public attention. For example in 2013, more than 100 small businesses, most of them Somali-run, were looted and some destroyed by petrol bombs after angry residents rampaged in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth.
The South African government has largely denied that such attacks are xenophobic, instead describing them as “criminality.”
Keeping with this line, Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane, the provincial minister for community safety, dismissed descriptions of the recent looting in Soweto as xenophobia.
"This is definitely not xenophobic attacks. This is attacks on shops,” she said, speaking outside the Mahori’s home in Snake Park.
“In this case we had people looting and stealing from the shops, and in most cases the shop-owners were not physically harmed,” Nkosi-Malobane said. “It was foreign shops targeted because the majority of the spaza shops in our townships are now run and owned by foreign nationals.”
Marc Gbaffou, chairman of the African Diaspora Forum in Johannesburg, said an anti-black foreigner attitude can be found in South Africa all the way from the townships to the top levels of government.
“The South Africa government doesn’t want the country to be labeled as a xenophobic country. If they acknowledge and say that yes, this is xenophobia, it means that the country is xenophobic,” Gbaffou said.
In an open letter, his group called on President Jacob Zuma to recognize attacks on foreigners as xenophobic violence, noting that the attitude of denial “has condoned the violence and allowed it to reach institutional heights.”
“It’s becoming a culture now that whenever the communities are angry they are taking it out on the migrant community,” Gbaffou said. “We think it is very important that government comes with a strong message that the perpetrators should be held accountable.”
This week the South African Jewish Board of Deputies condemned the wave of attacks on foreign-run shops as “hate crimes.”
“Scores of innocent people who came to our country in the hope of bettering their lot have been victimized and deprived of their livelihoods simply because they were born elsewhere,” the board said in a statement.
'They don't think we're human beings'
Many of the shopkeepers who fled Soweto have sought refuge in Mayfair, a bustling area of downtown Johannesburg known as “Little Mogadishu,” where they wait to see if they will be able to return to their businesses.
Salat Abdullahi, a 20-year-old from Somalia, ran a spaza shop with his older brother in the Slovoville area of the township. Last Thursday, a crowd of looters descended and the brothers escaped under police guard, taking with them whatever they could.
Abdullahi was luckier than others: while he managed to cart away some of his wares — dry goods, packs of drinks — other shopkeepers were left with only the shirts on their backs.
“They don’t like us. They don’t think we are human beings,” Abdullahi said. “We came here with nothing, and made a business, and they don’t like that.”
Mienke Mari Steytler, head of public affairs for the Johannesburg-based Institute for Race Relations, said little has changed in South Africa since the violence of 2008, with government policy failing to address the underlying causes of the attacks.
These include “the failure of the education system, the horrifically high unemployment rate, and the failure of empowerment policies to truly empower those that are most in need of it,” she said.
South Africa’s official unemployment rate is 25.5 percent, with an expanded rate of 35.6 percent when you include people who have simply given up looking for work. The figures are even higher among young people.
“Unless these policy changes are made, nothing will change,” Steytler said. “Racial incidents will continue to occur — and most probably increase as the economy weakens — and so too will xenophobic attacks.”
Foreign spaza shop owners are often accused of stealing the jobs of South Africans, and of running locally owned shops out of business by undercutting prices.
Lindiwe Zulu, the South African small business development minister, has announced a task team to address the tensions between local and foreign business owners, although it is unclear whether her approach will help.
“Foreigners need to understand that they are here as a courtesy, and our priority is to the people of this country first and foremost,” she said, according to Business Day, a South African newspaper.
“A platform is needed for business owners to communicate and share ideas. They cannot barricade themselves in and not share their practices with local business owners.”
In some cases, township protests over the government’s poor “service delivery” — meaning provision of basic services such as water and electricity — spill over into attacks on foreign-run businesses, as the first to be targeted.
In the recent Soweto attacks, many of the looters were said to be young and unemployed. Some residents have pointed to a drug called nyaope — a cocktail of low-grade heroin, marijuana and other ingredients — as a contributing factor.
Nothando Dlamini, 46, a domestic worker from Snake Park, said the neighborhood is a “nyaope place,” with many younger residents smoking the drug.
“Nyaope is a big problem,” said Dlamini. “They don’t go to school, they don’t have jobs. That’s why they were here looting — they were hungry.”
Dlamini said the residents of Snake Park had no problems with the foreign shop owners before the January 19 shooting of Siphiwe Mahori.
“But now we are angry,” she said, standing in front of the Raso Supermarket, where Siphiwe was killed. Inside the small, brightly painted shop is a mess of scrap and garbage, everything of value having been taken.
“We don’t want them anymore because they are going to shoot again. They must not come back. Our government must give us loans so we can open these shops,” she said.
Simon Tshabalala, 52, a neighbor of the Mahori family, said most of the foreign shopkeepers are “good people”: “They help us. The Somalis, they are so friendly,” he said.
“But being a human, you can’t just take out a gun and shoot a young child,” Tshabalala added. “It’s really painful to lose a child. They were putting a lot of hopes in him. The people feel angry. It just erupted.”