Soweto: Burning man, Burning Somali Man

A meeting held by Soweto business owners to discuss foreign-owned businesses operating in the area saw tempers flare as the agenda focused only on how to expel them. When one of the locals received a phone call saying his sister had been assaulted by a Somali shop owners, a mob formed which then rampaged through Snake Park and Braamfischerville, torching foreign-owned stores and setting one man alight. BHEKI C SIMELANE was there.

Speakers at the Orlando meeting had just one thing on their minds and that was how to get rid of foreign shop owners working in Soweto. Over 400 people were there but notably, not one foreign owner was in attendance.

“This meeting is about expelling foreign shop owners, so if you have a different agenda you can organise your own meeting in which you would preside,” said one local business owner.

It was midway through the highly-charged discussion that one of the business owners, a South African from Snake Park, announced that he had just received a call that Somali business owners had assaulted his sister. The news caused a hot rage. The Somali nationals were reportedly in possession of new machetes, they heard. The event broke up hurriedly as everybody dashed to Snake Park.

On arrival to the grounds of the Snake Park police station, where the foreign business people had sought protection, a stone fight ensued, with about 16 Somali nationals fighting back by throwing stones at the locals from inside the premises. Free flying stones damaged cars belonging to the Somalis and locals.

The local business owners who had called the original meeting, together with some community members, moved on to the store belonging to the Somali national accused of the assault. Some of the crowd gathered in front of the store started throwing stones inside. Soon after, a gunshot went off from inside the store. This infuriated the mob who asked police officers at the scene to search the store for the gun. They also demanded to know if the gun was illegal, something the cops could not verify even after finding the gun –a nine-millimetre pistol – and a cartridge.

It took about two hours for the police to arrest the suspected Somali shooter, 23 year-old Habib Mohamed Hassan, and three other Somalis, while they frantically tried to hold back the angry crowd. Police officers were not spared from insults and were accused of showing too much respect for the four arrested men.

The crowd in front of the store was baying for the blood of the Somalis. A window at the back of the store was shattered but no looting took place. The area was cordoned off and a police van reversed to the back of the store to take the four suspects away, protecting them from the crowd.

A group of local business people and community members then jumped into several cars and drove off. The convoy of cars used a back route into Braamfischerville. It was as if the actions that followed had been planned beforehand; the crowd even had petrol bombs ready.

As soon as the crowd arrived at the first Somali-owned shop in Braamfischerville phase two, cars stopped and a petrol bomb was thrown inside the store. As flames engulfed the store, which had no name, the convoy moved on to the Simon Tuck Shop, also in Braamfischerville phase two, and threw a second petrol bomb into the store.

It was at this shop that a middle aged Somali middle-aged man manning the store alone was badly burnt on his upper body. His shirt caught the fire from the petrol bomb and before long he was screaming in pain, begging for his life while his abdomen was in flames. The crowd outside kept shouting at him to open the gate to the store but he couldn’t. (His co-workers, apparently not anticipating the violence, had locked him inside the store.) All the while the Somali was screaming in excruciating pain, and the crowd at the back door of the store bayed at him to open the gate.

It was a horrifying scene as the Somali man burnt. On realising he probably doesn’t have keys to open the store gate, some of the journalists at the scene, including this reporter, pleaded with the angry crowd to break down the store gate and let the man go so they could help themselves to groceries without causing further harm. The Somali man, in an apparent effort to save his life, had brought a handful of cash notes together with some airtime. He gave the money and airtime to the people at his door but they wanted more. They then broke down the gate and the Somali, badly burnt and obviously dizzy, finally stumbled outside, crying and begging for his life.

The crowd then helped themselves to everything else in the store before taking off. The convoy of cars then drove off to the next store, some apparently shaken by the incident at Simon Tuck Shop. On arrival at the next store, which also had no visible name, another petrol bomb was thrown in, but it did not go far and little damage was done. A petrol bomb attack on a fifth store in Braamfischerville was foiled by the arrival of a police van. Eventually, police, who had called for back up, confiscated the keys to one of the cars in the convoy, a mini truck.

Not all Braamfischerville residents, however, were pleased by the actions of the attacking mob.

“If you people have issues you must raise those issues on the right platforms. This area has a block committee that you should be engaging instead you come here and burn down our stores. We buy from these people and we will not allow you to do as you please in our area. We’re not even aware of what you are fighting for. What you people from Snake Park are doing is criminal. You are just criminals but we will not allow you to terrorise and kill these people, not in our area, go and do it in Snake Park,” said a woman from Braamfischerville, who refused to give her name.

With Braamfischerville residents siding with the foreign shop owners in their area, aided by the presence of police officers, the attacks died down and some of the mob ran off when they saw more police arriving. They turned their attention to other areas of Braamfischerville but police followed them and foiled any further attacks. The convoy of cars then made its way out of the settlement.

Local business owner and community leader Pat Mamabolo said the meeting would be reconvened before Saturday. Mamabolo added that they needed to be consulted on everything the government was doing, using as an example of the Township Revitalisation Programme. “The government should consult us with regard to issues that directly concern us instead of going over our heads,” Mamabolo said.

Meanwhile signs that violence on foreign shop owners continues were there for all to see. Later, meetings were organised but the police were a step ahead each time. Notably, though, the mob had attacked four stores in Braamfischerville before the police could stop them.

It was not immediately clear how many people were arrested during the violence and none of the other three shops that were petrol bombed in Snake Park were looted except Simon Tuck Shop where the man was burnt. The other three were just left to burn and the extent of the damage could not be immediately established in the dangerous chaos that resulted from the events.

This latest violence comes after attacks on foreign-owned stores began in Snake Park in January and spread through the township and on to other areas. While the fight ensued, a press release from the department of small business development condemned the on-going attacks. “In the last few days, violent incidents took place in Marikana informal settlement, Philippi, in the Western Cape, Thembelihle informal settlement in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg and in some villages outside Modjadjiskloof in Limpopo. As government, business and civil society, we have a collective responsibility to address the root cause of the tension,” said the release.

It continued, “As government, we proceed from the premise that all people living in South Africa, including foreigners, are entitled to the full protection of our law. In terms of our Constitution, asylum seekers and refugees can establish and conduct businesses in South Africa. Foreigners who own businesses are also subject to the same taxes and levies as South Africans.” DM