In Grahamstown’s broken-down and ignored Vukani township, they call Aden Mohamed “Xolani”. A Somali national, Mohamed speaks very good Xhosa, having lived there for 11 years.
During that time, he has seen the birth of two sons and opened two spaza shops in a community for whom the R8 taxi fare to the nearest supermarket is often too dear. Towards month-end, before the pensions and social grants arrive, he lets gogos buy bread and milk on credit, say people in the area who know him well.
On October 21, he fled Vukani after locals started looting foreign-owned spazas. “They took everything – my stock, the fridges, even the roofs from the spazas. My concern was for my wife and children: I got them out of Grahamstown quickly, but how I will support them now that everything is gone, I don’t know,” he said while hiding out in a safe house with several hundred other displaced Bangladeshi, Somali, Pakistani and Ethiopian nationals.
Mohamed says more than R250 000 worth of stock was lost in the attacks. Shop owners estimate more than 200 spazas were ransacked in the looting, in some cases by very young boys. Police arrested 88 people on Wednesday, including 13 juveniles. They were set to appear in court today as Grahamstown shut down, with schools closed and the shops in town hunkering down.
Across town, African students like Zimbabwean Brilliant Xaba stood shoulder to shoulder with South African-born students at the barricades that blocked each entrance to Rhodes University: tables, benches, stones and tyres have been used to close off entrances to the institution. The barricades are manned 24/7, with hundreds of students – black, white, local and foreign – toyi-toying and singing songs of Zabalaza well past midnight every day.
A 26-year-old PhD candidate in the sociology department, Xaba sat outside the Unit for Humanities at Rhodes University’s (Uhuru) offices with a placard reading: “SIES XENOPHOBES. We are brothers and sisters on this continent of ours!!!”
The Uhuru offices on Prince Alfred Street are the nerve centre of the #FeesMustFall protest at “the university currently known as Rhodes”, as most progressive students and academics refer to the institution.
At noon on Thursday, sleep-deprived students continued to push the boundaries of their bodies at Uhuru. Cellphones for organising and documenting what was happening in Grahamstown and keeping in contact with the other sites of student protest in the country were mobbed into multiplugs.
Some were checking Twitter and Facebook to verify whether an account purporting to belong to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and stating that she would be arriving at the protest in solidarity with the students, was in fact hers. It turned out that it was not.
Students are tired from the days and nights on the barricades, but huddle together to discuss the feedback from the ongoing negotiations with senior management over their demands regarding the fees increase and minimal initial payment to register next year, but also broader transformation issues at the university.
With swot week set to start on Monday and exams a week later, management appears to be shifting goalposts in responding to the demands, raising mainly logistical issues and leaving students increasingly frustrated.
The emergence of the Black Student Movement (BSM) earlier this year was part of the radicalisation of students on the campus, but this protest is not merely about the BSM. Students from varying class, racial and political backgrounds appeared spurred into taking to the streets earlier this week. Their issues, as with most campuses around the country, are not just about the crippling fee increases, but also the transformation of the curriculum and academic staff, and recreating the spaces at these tertiary institutions away from entrenched white “normalcy”.
On Monday, when Rhodes Vice Chancellor Sizwe Mabizela addressed students and warned police off the campus as cops were turning their tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets on students at other campuses around the country, word of police violence at the town’s Eastcape Midlands Further Education and Training College emerged.
The Rhodes students marched there in solidarity. Police used non-lethal force on both them and the Eastcape students, who have been protesting funding and corruption issues that have troubled the FET college throughout the year, facing off against police regularly with little interest from the media.
“At the back of my mind I didn’t think they were going to shoot us because we were from Rhodes,” said Julie Nxadi, a politics honours student. “But the police lost it.”
“Students from Eastcape [mainly poor and black] were being shot at all the time. There was the assumption that being from Rhodes and having this proximity to whiteness would provide some protection, but it didn’t. The police proved the fallacy of the ‘coconut’ idea. When your black body appears at a protest, the police are not going to ask you to pronounce words before they shoot at you,” said Nxadi.
Pandemonium broke out. Students ran for cover. Stun grenades went off. Eventually, Mabizela went out to the college to negotiate for the police to stand down. They eventually did.
Two very different expressions of frustration at inequality, the governance deficiencies in democratic South Africa’s municipalities and tertiary institutions, and the lethargic pace of reconfiguring identity politics in the country emerged this week in Grahamstown.
The class and race divides in Grahamstown are glaringly obvious geographically, aesthetically and politically. As is access – and the lack thereof – to quality education, health and living standards.
The xenophobic attacks had apparently been triggered by the discovery of six female corpses around Grahamstown’s townships since September. Rumours had spread quickly that the bodies had suffered genital mutilation and that an “Arab man”, possibly “with a beard”, was responsible for these gruesome deaths.
The Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) mobilised residents and handed over a memorandum to authorities on 30 September, warning them of these rumours and that the potential for violence against foreigners was growing on the township streets. They marched again on 12 October, with the same warning delivered. Nothing was done.
Major Mbonisi Tshazibana, the cluster detective coordinator for the area, said he was first made aware of these community warnings on 21 October – the day of the xenophobic attacks.
During an emergency meeting called by the UPM on Thursday, Tshazibana said the Grahamstown detectives investigating the case had made no progress because “the investigating officers were still waiting for the DNA tests. We are suffering here because of the labs. We have cases since 1999 [where we haven’t received DNA test reports], and most of these cases are getting struck off the [court] roll.”
While the South African Police Service’s investigative capacity is floundering – to the detriment, mainly, of the poor – the police still maximise the use of crime intelligence and violent force to control activists, observed the UPM’s Ayanda Kota during the meeting.
Community member Siyamthanda Dyantjie asked why police had not responded to the community raising these concerns over the past month by informing people of the investigation’s progress and to dispel rumours that foreigners were the main suspects. Tshazibana had no response, suggesting that municipal councillors should have been keeping community members abreast of what was happening.
“The councillors do nothing. Our government is running away from their responsibilities and continuously failing us … We need to charge the police for what has happened [to the shopkeepers]. These are our brothers,” he said, nodding to the foreign shopkeepers gathered. “What about those [police] who have failed us? They must pay,” added Zola Mtshali of the Economic Freedom Fighters.
In Grahamstown this week, the haves and have-nots attempted to unravel South Africa’s fabric in very different ways. That fabric remained one of structural white privilege, accumulated capital and racism.
It is easily perceptible in the genteel pockets of whiteness secluded from the reality of a country grappling with a failed reconciliation project. In places such as the private oak tree-lined lawns of St Andrew’s Preparatory School, where monthly fees run into the thousands, mothers gathered to pick up their scions of privilege on Thursday afternoon.
A gaggle of them gathered at the gates, discussing the protests and rumours of mutilated bodies being found. Within earshot, two old domestic workers sat patiently waiting for their wards to emerge. One mother wondered aloud about whether there was indeed a serial killer on the loose in the town or if the killings were just “Xhosa culture”.
Another, in a St Andrew’s cap and muddied wellingtons suggesting the privilege of country living, bemoaned the streets being shut down because of the protests and her concerns about getting the shopping done. “There is only one way to stop these protests,” she said firmly, “just close down the KFC.”
Main Pic by Kate Janse Van Rensburg