Simangele Dube tried pleading with the mob that arrived on her doorstep on the morning of Thursday 30 July to demand that she leave her house. By then, groups of South African residents of Phola Park in Thokoza, south of Johannesburg, had been going from door to door since at least Tuesday night telling migrants to leave the area.
On Wednesday, it escalated with migrant-owned businesses and shops looted and destroyed. It carried on during the night, with many migrants fleeing with what little possessions they could carry with them.
While her husband was at work in Pretoria on Thursday morning, the mob arrived outside Dube’s house, intimidating her and her eight-year-old daughter.
They forced her out of the house and the mob ransacked it, destroying documents and stealing her cellphone before setting her husband’s car alight in the street outside their house in Extension 1.
“I’m feeling so bad. I don’t have any place to sleep tonight. They took everything and even burnt her birth certificate,” Dube, 54, said, referring to her daughter, Cynthia.
There was a bloodstain on her doek (headscarf) where someone had landed a blow during the incident.
Dube was clearly still in shock after the attack and seeing the state of her home. School textbooks, religious texts, clothes and other household goods littered the yard as the car continued burning in the street next to her.
“They came here and said the issue is with foreigners, but they know very well we aren’t foreigners. I’m married to a South African man,” she said. “They chased me away. I tried to explain, ‘No guys, you have it wrong’, but they did not care and chased me away.”
Dube, originally from Zimbabwe, married a Muslim South African 15 years ago and has had South African citizenship for 10 years. Despite telling this to the mob, it carried on and chased her out.
“I know that people think if he is a Muslim, he is a foreigner. But he is not a foreigner. I’m very angry because how can they do this?” she asked. Dube and her daughter were eventually taken to a place of safety by Amir Sheikh, spokesperson of the African Diaspora Forum.
Phola Park has been without electricity for as many as six weeks, according to some residents. When the City of Ekurhuleni announced earlier this week in a Facebook post that it could take a further three weeks to restore the electricity, residents started protesting.
Brigadier Mathapelo Peters, spokesperson for the South Africa Police Service (SAPS) in Gauteng, said 20 people had been arrested in connection with service delivery protests in the area. Peters described it as “lawlessness” and said the police were investigating “crime” when asked about the attacks on migrants.
“Police have intensified deployment and are on high alert since Wednesday evening 29 July 2020 monitoring closely the areas around Eden Park, Thokoza, Phola Park and Reiger Park,” she said. “This comes after incidents of violence and general lawlessness erupted from what started as sporadic service delivery protests related to electricity cuts in the mentioned areas on Wednesday afternoon. Criminal elements took advantage of the protests and attacked and looted three shops in Eden Park. A warehouse was also torched.”
Sheikh rejected claims that it was a service delivery protest and said residents had been planning this for a while. “It’s been building up for years even,” he said. “It’s not a service delivery [issue]. This is actually pure xenophobia and a way to get an audience with the government with their unjustifiable demands. It’s not even concerns, because they are saying migrants are taking our businesses. It’s all unjustifiable.”
He added: “You can look at it like this: we are the weakest link and by attacking the migrants you will actually get the ear of the government. This is nothing about service delivery.”
Sheikh estimated that 124 spaza shops, stalls and other businesses in the area were either damaged or looted.
Earlier in July, participants in a truck drivers’ strike led by the All Truck Drivers Foundation ended up at a football field in Thokoza, where they were joined by many local residents who raised concerns about their unemployment and the employment of migrants in a number of industries.
Luan Bentley, who was at that meeting and describes himself as a community activist, said at the time:
“We’ve approached several industries, we’ve approached several sectors. All the investors have a tendency to employ foreign nationals and we feel as South Africans that they are undermining our integrity and our dignity. Because the dignity of a man is not land – it is employment that can change my life.”
On Wednesday, as the violence escalated in the area, Bentley said it was “inevitable” because the government had been ignoring their demands.