IT took Getachew Eriro four months to make his way from Ethiopia to a South African township and open a little shop selling bread, sweets and canned fish.
It took just a few minutes to lose it all when a mob of more than 50 residents broke in two months ago, ripping through the roof to steal his stock and trash the store. He says it was because he’s an immigrant.
“I was inside the shop and they broke the door,” said Eriro, 31, as he swept up debris and repacked his shelves in his rented garage in Snake Park, a community in Soweto, the sprawling township southwest of Johannesburg where Nelson Mandela once lived. “More than 50, 60 people. I was afraid. I had to run away and save my life.”
South Africa is in the midst of the worst outbreak of anti-immigrant violence in more than half a decade. At least five people have been killed and more than 200 arrested in Gauteng province, the country’s economic hub that includes Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria.
A Somali shop owner in the township of Doornkop was burned inside his convenience store when a mob began hurling petrol bombs into shops on February 25 after warning foreigners to leave. The man, who hasn’t been identified, was treated in the intensive-care unit at a Johannesburg hospital, police said.
It’s a tragic turn of events for a country whose 21-year- old democracy was created to uphold equal treatment for all, regardless of race or background. Speaking to the US Congress following his release from prison in 1990, Mandela said that to deny people their human rights “is to challenge their very humanity.”
The violence reflects South Africa’s failure to live up to the ideals of a constitution admired around the world for protecting those rights and to provide hope for a better economic future for its citizens, said Roland Henwood, a political science lecturer at the University of Pretoria.
“We are fooling ourselves if we think we have arrived and we are all these nice things,” Henwood said by phone. “Many people are so destitute and marginalised that they cannot see themselves achieving and making use of the opportunities. Therefore they prevent others from gaining that kind of advantage.”
The government’s response has been to treat the violence as criminal acts—while sympathizing with local business owners and pledging to give them more assistance.
“The recent tragic and unacceptable incidents of violence and the looting of shops of foreign nationals in Soweto were a reminder of the need to support local entrepreneurs and eliminate possibilities for criminal elements to exploit local frustrations,” President Jacob Zuma told lawmakers on February 19.
The wave of attacks and looting was triggered after a Somali shop owner shot and killed a 14-year-old boy during an alleged robbery in January. It’s the worst anti-immigrant violence since 2008, when about 60 people were killed and about 50,000 displaced from their homes.
As Africa’s most industrialised nation, South Africa attracts thousands of foreigners every year, seeking refuge from poverty, economic crises, war and government persecution in their home countries. While the bulk of them are from elsewhere on the continent, such as Zimbabwe, Somalia and Ethiopia, many come from Pakistan and India.
Eriro hitchhiked most of the 5,433-kilometer (3,376-mile) distance from his village near the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to Johannesburg. He fled his home country in 2009, concerned for what he said was his safety after supporting an opposition movement to Ethiopia’s ruling party.
As the eldest of seven children, Eriro was charged with earning income to send back home. He chose to settle in Johannesburg because he had distant cousins there who said they would help give him a head start. Opening a business wasn’t too hard: No formal registration or licensing is required to operate a convenience store, known as a spaza, from a home, according to the South African Spaza and Tuckshop Association.
And spazas enjoy support in the community: Some residents have helped attacked shopkeepers rebuild and restock, for instance. Mzukisi Soko turned out to help Eriro unload and shelve his new stock of groceries.
“When the foreigners’ shops were closed, people were complaining because they didn’t have anywhere nearby to buy goods and the big retailers charge a lot more,” said Soko, 30, a resident of Snake Park for 10 years. “I think people are driving their own interests against foreigners, and not necessarily for the betterment of the community here.”
‘They will worry about me’
Eriro lost all his clothes and personal possessions in the attack, including photographs and immigration papers. He won’t be able to send any money home until he repays a 30,000 rand ($2,536) loan he got from a friend to restock his shop and replace three refrigerators that were stolen.
“I don’t have any other place to go so that’s why I’m staying,” he said. “I’m trying to help my family and send money to my mother and brothers and sisters. I haven’t told them what has been happening here because they will worry about me, and what will that help?”
It’s not the first time Eriro has faced misfortune. He had four robberies prior to the January attack, forcing him each time to borrow money for restocking from friends or distant relatives who own shops in townships. He said he’s lost trust in the police because none of the prior reports he filed have been resolved, though he did file this time as well.
In overcrowded, poverty-stricken townships, competition for resources is high. Many residents survive on a monthly state welfare grant of 330 rand for children this year up to the age of 18 or 1,410 rand for pensioners. While the official national jobless rate is 24%, it stands at 35% if people who’ve given up looking for work are included.
“It’s a lot more complicated than saying South Africans hate foreigners who live around them,” Patricia Erasmus, manager of the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, said by phone from Cape Town. “There are many factors that influence the tensions, such as a depressed economy and the history we have.”
The government has pledged zero tolerance against looters and rallied officials to promise more support for local black businessmen operating in townships.
Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu went so far as to say foreigners must share their trade secrets with locals to help foster better integration and prevent looting.
“Black people were never part of the economy of South Africa in terms of owning anything, therefore when they see other people coming from outside being successful they feel like the space is being closed by foreigners,” Zulu said in a phone interview.
Not tough enough
For Phopho Mini, a 70-year-old South African who has been running a spaza in Snake Park since 1991, the government hasn’t been tough enough in regulating foreign-owned shops.
“These people infiltrate the townships and it’s hard competing with them because they charge extremely low prices,” Mini said. “Our government is just too lax. Nowhere else can a person arrive today and just set up a business.”
With debt to repay, Eriro said his only option is to keep his business open despite the hostile environment.
“When I left my home, I went through too much to get here,” he said. “I want to open the shop again and if they come to remove me again, I will go, but even if I open for one day it will be better than nothing.”
—With assistance from Simbarashe Gumbo in Johannesburg.