“Yeoville is different this year. More dangerous.”
That is exactly what I was told when I bumped into three long-time residents on separate blocks as I walked down Rockey Street, the Johannesburg suburb’s retail and services spin-downs in the last three decades having turned it, in my humble estimation, into one of the most ethnically diverse 20 square blocks on the planet. Now something new is afoot.
On the afternoon of Monday 6 August, about fifty people danced and sang their way to Winchester Court, a block of flats on Yeoville’s edge. The songs told of land that would be reclaimed, South African land back in authentically South African hands. A few ringleaders asked to be let into the building but were denied access by the security guard, Mpho Obert-Banda, on the basis that they were not tenants or had been invited by tenants.
Over the road, a spaza shop snapped shut. The mob broke down the Winchester fence and beat the guard. A bystander started videoing the incident and was promptly beaten bloody, though the guard got a chance to sprint off towards the spiffy new Yeoville police station four blocks away.
Most residents were away at work, but a Zimbabwean beautician, Sonya, who works in Cresta, was dozing in her Winchester flat on her day off. She woke up to the sounds of doors being bashed down, security gates being ripped off their hinges, and a curious argument. “I want this room!” “No no, I said I’m taking that one first, you take that one.” “You two sort yourselves, I’m going for that one over there”. When Sonya’s door was broken open, she screamed, begging for mercy.
A few rooms down, a young boy heard the same sounds and when his own door began caving in under blows from the other side, he ran for the window. He was alone. He wanted to jump, a 3m fall seeming safer than whatever was coming. People on the street shouted, ‘No, stay! You won’t be hurt.’
So he went back in and buried the family TV under blankets before hiding in the closet. In another room, a nine-year-old girl was screaming, also alone at home, clutching her family’s most valuable possession, a computer. She was slapped by one of the invaders, but she would not let go. Remarkably, the assailants rewarded her young courage (and possibly her ability to communicate in the vernacular) with clemency and the computer was saved. The attack quieted down.
At the police station, Mpho tried to raise the alarm. The police’s attention, I’m told, was elsewhere, and Mpho was asked to come back at a more convenient time, ‘tomorrow’, so he went to hospital instead. When he returned to the station, his bosses, landlords Carl Thom and administrator Hannah Neuhaus of K201 Properties, were filing a complaint which he enjoined. Another wave of the attack followed a couple of hours later.
More rent-paying tenants had returned from work by now and were told to pack their bags and go back to where they came from. No one objected. No one dared. Furniture was broken and valuables lost as a score of people carried their worldly goods through a human corridor of sjamboks, wooden clubs and jeers, which included the m-word (makwerekwere).
Carl (a friend of mine) had recently bought a property nearby and now turned it into a safe house for the violently evicted. With their tattered goods locked up, the victims made another trip to the police station, this time en masse. The police, I’m told, were still preoccupied, so a sit-in ensued, lasting for several hours deep into the night.
That night, the building’s two live-in security guards left their women and suckling children behind at Winchester, forced to accept the assurance that they would be safe, but that the men, had they stayed, would not. A large wooden table was set alight and taken into the courtyard to fuel a bonfire. A night of hard drink and dance ensued. Songs of Winchester Court’s liberation kept the women, babies and neighbours up till sunrise. The women desperately exchanged text messages through the night to assure their husbands that “we will see you again”.
To their credit, the police did go to Winchester the next day and cleared out the property hijackers, making several arrests.
Winchester Court was, until 2017, a hijacked building whose tenants had been paying pirates who used the funds to feather their own nests and put a lawyer on a retainer to fight an eviction order for years. Meanwhile, the building crumbled without basic amenities or care.
Carl says that after pouring half a million rand of legal fees into the case, victory became imminent, so the building’s former leadership offered to start redirecting the rent they collected to the new owners. This proved to be a tactical error, clear evidence that residents had the funds to pay rent which meant they could be evicted without the state or new owners being forced to provide intermediary accommodation on their behalf.
This backstory provides the first line of defence for this month’s violent eviction of a score of the new tenants, all black, half foreign. The former tenants came to take back their own.
I saw the building just after the legal eviction in 2017. The floors had been turned into fire pits, the hygiene facilities were derelict, all traces of copper and other recuperables were stripped after years of no money going into the building or utilities. Power was being run by exposed live wires from a substation in the building next door. At that point, all the flats would have been renovated had the legal battle not drained the new owners’ coffers.
Instead, only a couple of flats were renovated, fitted with tiled floors and electricity and gas stoves and neat simple bathrooms and – the now unhinged – doors and gates.
There is no doubt that many of those who invaded Winchester Court had once lived there, although sources on the ground allege there were several opportunists in the mob. At this point, I assumed the story to be simply a battle between rules-based capitalism and those who believe that the poor should be able to stay put for life, with mere overtones of xenophobia.
Why did the invaders come now, 17 months after the building was newly occupied? None of the violently overthrown new tenants were prepared to venture a guess. Then a Nigerian man walked by and said: “You saw what they did before? They went to the market on Sunday to chase foreigners”. I followed up and multiple sources confirmed that for weeks a van had been driving around Yeoville with a loudspeaker calling for expropriation of foreigners without compensation, together with election campaigning for 2019 (though no particular party has been mentioned). Meetings were called where people gathered on Rockey Street and riled themselves up not far from the marketplace, a prime target for xenophobia.
The marketplace is Yeoville’s heart, an open plan block under a massive roof where you can get dried West African fish, Arab beans, fresh baked bread, raw nuts, Nike shoes, unpronounceable herbs and tasty garden eggs – all on the cheap. The stalls are rented out by the state at about R600 per month and there is a constant buzz of small business. Most of its operators are not native South Africans.
On the Sunday before Winchester Court was invaded, the same songs of taking South Africa back chimed down Rockey Street to the marketplace where people with sjamboks beat the stalls, telling their owners to go back to where they came from. The same thing happened at the market the Sunday after Winchester Court was invaded.
The next day, 13 August, after closing, a start was allegedly made at burning the marketplace down. The police have been prompt in defending the market, shooting warning shots and dispelling mobs before any serious damage is done to the municipal property. So, till now, the market operators have been effectively defended. Still, all those I spoke to feel insecure.
One market seller, Elliah, from the DRC, has been in this country for 16 years and spoke to me while her pre-adolescent daughter tucked homework away under a rack of face-creams. She said she was afraid every day now after years of working in peace. But then, she said, “where else can I go? There is war back in Congo. I cannot jump from the rain into the river.”
Xenophobic attacks are not new to South Africa, but they are a novelty in Yeoville. Yeoville is so intensely foreign – prominent groups being Zimbabwean, Ethiopian, Nigerian, Congolese, Ghanaian, and Malawian – that locals are a minority. Since 2008, when xenophobic violence seemed to inundate the country, Yeoville has always been a haven to immigrants.
In 2016, Marc Gbaffou, a Yeovillite from the Ivory Coast who heads the Africa Diaspora Forum, described Yeoville as xenophobia-free, saying: “It’s so vibrant in this area, you don’t find Yeoville anywhere else in South Africa...in Yeoville you feel the warmth of people.” This bastion of diversity has also developed as a tourist attraction. But all the talk of South African land in South African hands seems to have tipped the balance back against “them”.
A central African philosophical bouncer, who asks to be called Mr T-Junction, said to me: “The mayor is not the problem. He wants rules, he wants to control the issue of foreigners with rules. It’s tough for us to think about his rules, but ask yourself … why did we come here? When everybody plays by rules that is good. When rules are just power plays then there is only one rule”. He beat his chest and then pointed at me, drawing a thumbnail across his neck. “Come, I show you how it looks. When the one rule is take what you can get. I take you to where my family is buried in Congo.”
I tried to force myself to believe that the invasion of Winchester Court and the attacks on the Yeoville market have nothing to do with national politics, and took myself to the Yeoville park to walk it off. This is tragic, I repeated to myself, but it is just another specific tragedy in a country that has unspeakably many. Then I looked up. In the middle of the park were two ANC tents for “building political awareness here”, another novelty which is unsurprising in retrospect, given the arbitrary property-fuelled election around the corner.
Black and brown foreigners have long been victims of xenophobic violence in South Africa. In May 2008, xenophobic attacks spread throughout the country, killing sixty people and displacing more than 100 000. But xenophobic attacks are a daily occurrence. Doing research for an IRR report in 2016/2017, I found the most common way immigrants describe themselves in relation to South Africans is calling themselves “ATMs”. It is almost impossible to open a bank account with asylum or temporary papers, so these human beings carry cash, which is drawn from them with mechanical efficiency on a daily basis.
Then there are mob attacks like the ones I’ve just described. The South African Migration Project, a think tank, released a report on xenophobic mob violence last year. According to the report “[m]ob attacks since [May 2008] have increasingly focused on migrant and refugee business owners in the informal economy. Between mid-2009 and late 2010, for example, there were at least 20 deaths, 200 foreign-owned shops looted and more than 4 000 displaced due to violence targeting migrants. In 2012, there were 140 deaths and 250 serious injuries. And in early 2014, an estimated 200 shops were looted and 900 persons were displaced... The violence has increased in frequency over time”.
Whether xenophobic violence really is increasing is hard to tell since the chances of them being reported to the police are so low. The state has also been repeatedly criticized for its failure to release statistics on xenophobic attacks (just like farm attacks).
Before EWC, the state’s major attempt to revolutionize property rights was called PLOF, Policy on Land Owned by Foreigners, which aimed to ban all foreigners from owning land in SA. This was based on a 2013 State Land Audit which, in the words of the former director-general of Land Reform, Mdu Shabane, was “unable to identify foreign ownership because the system does not provide for that analysis”. PLOF was talked up anyway, making foreigners no less vulnerable to mobs who think they do not belong.
Until now, Yeoville has been largely protected from mob attacks on immigrants, through safety in numbers. As ANC and EFF leadership talk up an authentically pure South Africa though, immigrants in Yeoville have been laterally cast into the axis of those who do not belong. A black citizen like the guard Mpho, who stood up for immigrants and locals and the rule of law, can be knocked right back down when he stands alone.
What will it take for South Africans to stand together against the creeping domination of arbitrary power and increasing dispossession based on some people having the “wrong” kind of lineage?
Gabriel Crouse is a writer commissioned by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.