In May 2008, xenophobic attacks swept through South Africa leaving 62 people dead and 21 of whom were South African citizens. Elitsha spoke to foreign nationals in Port Elizabeth Central to ask whether they feel safe or not.
Africa Day is celebrated every 25 May to highlight the importance of unity and brotherhood among people from the continent and in the diaspora. Various government departments in South Africa do not miss the opportunity to bring together people of diverse cultures to preach peace and unity among Africans.
Xenophobia continues to rear its ugly head with the latest media reports about a threatening letter that was sent to foreign owners of shops in KwaMashu, Inanda and Ntuzuma in KwaZulu-Natal. Many immigrants feel happy to honour the day in style while showcasing their cultures and traditions with their South African counterparts. They say this gesture of friendship and humility inevitably assists in eradicating xenophobic sentiments.
However, it was a different story in Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality (NMBM) as the iconic event passed without any notice.
Foreigners who live in Port Elizabeth Central said they live in perpetual fear of being attacked by local South Africans. They attributed this to a long-held notion that drug peddling, human trafficking and prostitution are all carried out in the area by foreign nationals.
The concerned foreigners singled out the municipality which they say subtly promotes xenophobia by denying foreign street hawkers operating licenses while issuing these readily to South Africans.
Muchada Takaenda, 46, a Zimbabwean informal trader said she relocated from Motherwell to Port Elizabeth Central during the xenophobic attacks of 2008. “The Central” as it is affectionately known by residents is notorious for drug-smuggling, human trafficking and brothels.
The mother of three explained,”I was living harmoniously in Motherwell. I was never attacked but the feeling and the sight of what was happening in other provinces were too much for me and my family. Many foreigners left their township lodgings and joined the queue to live in town where security was deemed safe.
“However, over the years I have discovered that it is much safer in townships than here. We are being constantly harassed everyday by the locals who accuse us of selling drugs and engaging in prostitution. They also accuse us of bribing the police.”
Muchada lives in a one-bedroomed flat with her husband and three children. The children all attend school in Korsten. She sells fruits and vegetables from an undesignated site on Govan Mbeki road. Her husband works as a cashier at a seaside restaurant in Port Elizabeth.
Olewese, a Nigerian citizen, said he has been living in Port Elizabeth for twenty-one years. In his opinion, living in Port Elizabeth Central is now much safer than what it was a decade ago.
He explained, “It is now safer to walk at night in Port Elizabeth Central. The place used to be a drug haven and crime was rife. I think that the stigma to brand all foreigners as the bad guys could be traced to that period.
“There are many churches now as compared to previous years when illegal shebeens outnumbered churches. There is a high police visibility and the municipality has just released their Metro cops onto the streets. You can also count on many local South Africans who have abandoned their township houses to come and live with us here. Though there is still a remnant of the locals who still call us names but they are very few.”
A South African father of two, who works for one of the Nigerians as an Uber taxi driver said he was not happy with his government for not empowering poor people.
Declining to give his name, the middle-aged man said,” I blame my government for not opening business opportunities to us South Africans. I am working for a foreigner who is making a lot of money in my country. I don’t hate foreigners but how did they get all this money when most of them would tell you that they arrived in South Africa penniless?”
The landlord of a block of flats along Russell Rd in Central, who also preferred anonymity, said cases of drugs and prostitution have decreased over the years.
“I have twelve tenants, of which nine are foreigners. I made sure that they were employed before I took them in. It is true that some residences have no strict laws. That is where drugs and prostitution take place. It is, however, difficult these days to do that in the open because of high police presence. The municipal police, the Department of Home Affairs and the SAPS always conduct unannounced raids at residences suspected of breaking the law,” he said.
Somali Association of South Africa secretary, Mohamed Kat said, “Previous municipal administrators used to invite us to participate in celebrating Africa Day. It’s now two years without honouring the event. We need such gatherings as it offers foreigners and locals a platform to interact and demystify some stigmas.”
Zimbabwean human rights activist, Shelton Chiyangwa encouraged foreigners to promote unity with locals in the communities they live in. He said, “I have lived in Port Elizabeth for the past eight years. Over the years I have witnessed foreign nationals being subjected to ridicule and being called names, mostly those who stay in Port Elizabeth Central.
“We are accused of peddling drugs and human trafficking which unfortunately leads to local communities treating us harshly. I will never condone the few foreigners who find themselves doing such things but its equally not right to paint everybody with the same brush.
“Foreign nationals in Port Elizabeth are mainly involved in businesses such as hair salons, barbershops, street vending and others are working.”
Chiyangwa challenged the municipality to assist in community building bridges between foreign nationals and locals.
He said, “We humbly challenge the municipality and especially the mayor to engage with respective stakeholders as well as foreign migrants to sit down and come up with programmes that promote tolerance, peace and unity.”
NMBM mayoral spokesperson, Sibongile Dimbaza said the introduction of Metro Police has led to a decline in crime in the Central area. “Crime in Central is a matter of concern, but the introduction of the Metro Police has seen an improvement in some areas where previously criminals were running amok. However, crime fighting remains the primary responsibility of the SAPS whom we work with through our dedicated Metro Police force.”
Dimbaza denied that they were not issuing trading permits to foreigners.