Michael Trapido
Michael Trapido

Xenophobia – Alexandra, a tale of two in one city

As a regular visitor to Alexandra as a criminal attorney, I decided to go in there yesterday and find out from the guys on the ground why they were so angry, and put the allegations of xenophobia into some form of context.

As we all know, nothing happens in a vacuum and people who are normally law abiding and friendly people don’t just start willy–nilly attacking their neighbors.

Blaming criminals and/or a third force for the problems is a very dangerous road to travel. Firstly, as you will see below, it papers over the cracks rather than dealing with the real issues giving rise to the anger. Secondly it affords an easy excuse for incompetence and a failure to set effective policies. Thirdly it will confuse those who are genuinely trying to get real solutions for these communities.

Any law abiding citizen who commits a crime can be styled a criminal. So if the residents of Alexandra are overcome by desperation and commit acts of violence they become “criminals”. Don’t lose sight of this while people are trying to brand ordinary residents of Alexandra as criminals to suit their own purpose.

I would however first put this article into context. The people I spoke to were, primarily, the local residents and Zimbabweans who live in Alexandra. In addition I went to speak to the police and some of those at court, who were not asked to give an official opinion or standpoint, merely their perception of what is going on.

These are simply their views; the people who live and work in Alexandra, none of which has been referred to the politicians or government spokesmen to comment on. In that light their perception might be wrong save in one material respect — government take note — it is what they believe to be the problems. Whether or not they are correct is irrelevant because to them their concerns are very real and forms the basis of their anger.

Where they are wrong, the perception can be altered by communicating the true position to them. Where they are right, they need reassurance that there is a gameplan to deal with these issues and an outline of what that is.

I’ll start with the views of the local residents as to the underlying causes giving rise to their anger.

There is a perception that explanations are only given to the leaders of the community, rather than time being taken out to speak to the community as a whole.

Housing (make a huge note and pin it to your fridge)
By far their biggest axe to grind is the fact that locals, having put their names down on a list with the councils for housing, are ignored and their units given to any foreigners who bung the officials money. This leaves some of them waiting years for accomodation.

People are unable to get title deeds to their unit. Again, they believe that is due to the fact that councils are misleading them. They allege that the councils do not own the land, which has not been transfered to them from the owners since Alexandra was a farm. I would suggest someone investigate and explain the true reason for the inability to transfer these units.

“Owners” are finding foreigners pitching up and building shacks next to their homes. As they point out, it is not only a question of overcrowding, but not knowing who these people are or what they do.

They stressed that locals are not lazy! They would like to know from their fellow South Africans how they would feel if people arrived from overseas and undercut their wages, resulting in them either getting fired or losing out to foreigners prepared to work for a pittance. The fact that foreigners also don’t belong to unions and are easy to exploit makes them an attractive work force.

Our court rolls in respect of armed robbery are 70% of the time concerned with foreigners as the accused. (In this court as confirmed by members of that court)

Foreigners commit a lot of the violent crime and locals cite incidents of people being shot for a cellphone.

They were first told to arrest illegals then told to stop. When this happened, the numbers coming and going went from being sustainable to a population explosion because nobody was leaving.

The court has been without a phone for weeks and the police are doing the best they can within their limited resources.

The Zimbabweans are the friendliest people in Africa, and when I met these guys my heart went out to them. As they point out if Mugabe was gone they’d all go home like a shot. If he is still there, they will be shot as they get home.

They have come to South Africa to seek refuge from the abuses of the “Old Man”. They are not seeking confrontation, many of them have lived here for 10 years or more, and are friendly with local residents.

While there are illegals among them, they are simply looking for a place to stay and to work in order to keep body and soul together. If their status means lower wages can they be blamed for accepting work?

What gave me goosebumps was hearing that people with whom they had been friendly for years had started pointing them out as foreigners. This is reminiscent of Nazi Germany where Jews were pointed out to the police and army by the very people they had grown up with or considered friends.

Vital to understanding the situation is the realisation that not everything can be resolved by slamming xenophobia. I appreciate that everyone is rallying around our guests and that is as it should be. But do not forget in your haste to condemn xenophobia that there are real problems here and merely stopping the violence is putting a band–aid on a broken foot.

Firstly housing and jobs are of primary concern to this community. As they pointed out, they were of a mind to start going into companies and start asking if their employees were legal. This will create bedlam occasioned by a vigilante “Home Affairs” group going around disrupting the work places and let’s face it, creating an administration nightmare for the police, courts and Home Affairs.

Someone has to explain to the community what steps are going to be taken to protect jobs for locals while also allowing refugees, while their status is still being sorted out, some form of “permit” so as not to occasion a stampede.

In terms of housing, an independent body needs to go in and verify what is happening with these councils, all the while explaining to the community what steps are being taken.

The police also need guidelines on how to deal with the strangers who just wander in. If we allow asylum, which is the right thing to do, don’t just allow refugees to choose wherever they want to go. Some sort of order has to be given if places like Soweto and Alexandra aren’t going to be overrun and spark violence.

Which country in the world would allow refugees and asylum seekers to just wander into any city and just pitch tents or shacks wherever they like?

There has to be a gameplan known to the police, local authorities, residents and refugees. I don’t blame my brothers from Alex’ for being upset about the way this is being handled.

While the government hopefully moves quickly to implement some sort of gameplan to address this problem the police need to advise residents that the next people to be arrested for these xenophobic acts will be denied bail.

The Zimbabweans, among others, offered refuge to many South Africans during apartheid. Don’t disgrace us by not showing them the respect and decency they deserve. Demand answers to the questions you put to me rather than acting like thugs.

As things stand the days are relatively calm but the nights are becoming dangerous as locals look to root out the “foreigners” among them. Foreigners are being forced to seek shelter with the police and this situation is untenable.

I cannot stress highly enough that xenophobia is a symptom of bigger problems — too many people chasing too few resources with seemingly no gameplan on how to deal with it. Sowetans today were demanding free electricity because they can’t even afford food. You can’t push these fears under the carpet and use heavy handed policing to deal with it.

Business and government have to start making contingency plans on how best to address the very real fear of people who don’t have enough money to buy food or find shelter. (Treat food price fixing on basic foodstuffs as a crime against humanity?)

In terms of our refugees we need policies in place to deal with people arriving in this country. Where should they go, what jobs they can do and where they can obtain services like medical treatment and the like.

Whatever policies are in place now need to start being enforced. Where there are lacunas in our law, interim provisions have to be introduced until legislation can be tabled.

Lack of communication and direction are your two biggest enemies — if residents and refugees know where they stand half the battle is won. Tell people what the policies are!

We must not delude ourselves into thinking that stopgaps will suffice. This needs a strong gameplan monitored on an ongoing basis. The residents in Alexandra tell me that many of their grievances arose long before the current situation and are unrelated to foreigners.

We must not lose sight of the fact that our communities, if Alex is anything to go by, feel neglected and long overdue an explanation about issues such as those raised by the residents of Alexandra.

It is one thing to help asylum seekers or refugees in terms of an orderly, well planned operation but, as we are seeing, quite another to just allow them to come pouring in.

We’ve all agreed that xenophobia is a non–starter to be dealt with by the police and courts with a strong hand. Now let’s all get past that and start dealing with the main issues — getting our communities to start believing in local authorities because they start looking after these South Africans.

Implementing or legislating workable immigration laws that factor in the needs of those who seek refuge and the realities of our economy.

A good start?

Stop propping up Bob – The Zimmies get to go home and we have a far less onerous burden to bear.

A win-win-whine solution (What?! Do you think the old man will go quietly?)