While students (pictured) took to the streets of Grahamstown to protest against fees hikes and for the transformation of Rhodes University, xenophobic violence and looting by residents of nearby townships was meted out to Muslim shop-owners of various nationalitiesSanele Ntshingana and Paddy O’ Halloran investigated the latter’s effects (Photograph: Kate Janse van Rensburg)

The room is walled with grey, cracking plaster, and the ceiling is sagging. Its only adornments are angular burglar bars over the single window and a tilted picture on the wall. A dozen women, maybe more, sit or stand, shoulder to shoulder. They are shouting: not to be heard, but because what they have to say can only be said in a shout. They are some of the women whose shops and homes have been emptied in five days of xenophobic looting in Grahamstown, whose families are left with nothing.

Five hundred people have been left stranded by the attacks. The Makana Municipality and the police have been of scant assistance  and, in some cases, even implicated in the rumour-driven xenophobic sentiment and crimes.

The women continue shouting, explaining what happened to them, working it all into a statement to send to the press that has been mostly silent about their plight.

“And what about our children’s education?” asks one woman, her face tight with anger. The shop owners’ children are not in school because of threats to their safety.

The crowded room is located in the office of the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) in Grahamstown. Throughout the attacks, UPM members have worked hard to contest the crisis, both politically and practically, even though the movement has no resources beyond a few tiny rooms and the energy of its members.

One woman moves around the room with plates of amasi to be shared by the people gathered there. Behind the shouting, murmured conversations are held in Xhosa, Afrikaans, and English. Two women even share a joke in Xhosa and laugh, if briefly.

In the front room, which is emptier and quieter, a Nigerian man whose fruit and vegetable shop was among the first to be looted, sits, in borrowed clothing, speaking to his countryman, an academic at Rhodes University..The shop owner is startlingly calm for a man in his predicament; the academic, on the other hand, wears his shock on his face and posture. Soon, they go out to eat lunch—still unsure of their safety on the streets

The attacks began last week following rumours that an “Arab looking” man was responsible for the deaths and mutilation of six women, whose bodies have been found in the town’s ghettoes in the weeks since September.

Aslam Madbur is one of the many Bangladeshis who have been affected by the attacks and looting. He has lived in South Africa for over 10 years and has been trading in Grahamstown for more than seven

“More than 70 people broke into my shop and took everything. They say we’re cutting other people. There’s no proof, maybe they want to do that but now they taking out and making stories,” Madbur says. He adds that the looters took more than R50 000 worth of stock from his shop and that he is now left with nothing.

The rumours of a foreign national being responsible for the deaths had been brewing for weeks  until some members of the township were incited to carry out their own version of vigilante justice. The rumours had been brought to the attention of authorities on separate occasions—with no response from either the police or the municipality.

One of the attacks took place after a taxi-driver protest in Grahamstown, when members of the protest went on a looting rampage. But while some looted, other locals stood shoulder to shoulder with the Ethiopian, Somali, Pakistani and Bangladeshi shopkeepers in support and protection of people who had integrated themselves into the communities, and become locals themselves.

Outside the UPM office, a fifty-year-old man sits quietly smoking. He lives in a shack on the outskirts of town with his wife and children, but since the looting began, he has been busy disseminating anti-xenophobic flyers in Grahamstown’s township.

“I know everything about the people who are suffering, who are still suffering again,” he used to say when the looting first began. “They say I’m free, but there is no free for me. I’m still living in the squatter camp in the shacks. But everybody, this is our country, everybody, no matter you are white, not matter you are black, no matter you are green, we are here in South Africa,” he would add.

He is quieter now.

“This rain,” is all he has to say, looking down at the drizzle spotting the cobble-stone road.

A few metres from him, a man sits in the passenger seat of a white bakkie with a cigarette in his fingers. His shop was also looted, but he is silent.

In the past five days, people in Grahamstown have been political in different ways. Some admirable, even courageous, fought to defend other’s shops and safety, their own and their families’ livelihoods, while others have robbed and burned, motivated by rumours, fears, selfish business interests, and the frustrations and corruption of local political life.

Inside the UPM building, an infant runs in the narrow passage as best as his new legs will allow him, smiling up at people and laughing. He greets everyone, men included, as his mother. Meanwhile, the women work on their statement, determined to affirm their humanity.

“We are all persons. We must treat each other with respect,” they say, opposing the xenophobic slogans that were painted on taxis last week: “They must go. They must burn.”

Across town, in another room, municipal councillors mince around but offer no help. Though the municipality has called a meeting of ‘the community’, the spirit of the word is lost. There, form and authority are important, not the crisis of human lives. When one councillor furiously says that we all belong in South Africa, she is told by the chair to sit down and show some respect. Another councillor says that when the ‘foreigners’ return, they should have fewer shops. She is not interrupted.

Five hundred people were directly affected by the looting in Grahamstown—but the dozen women who shout in the tiny room and even the man who smokes silently out front convey more intensely and suddenly the actual meaning of the five days of violence. Community exists even where violence and exclusion seem to break it. Among the diverse people gathered at the UPM office, community is created and preserved, even while in other spaces, it is destroyed. Community is based on shared humanity, in some cases shared suffering. The little boy who gnaws on a carrot and the woman who defiantly asserts that she will defend her shop if it is attacked again are both part of it.

People live during times of crisis—they still eat, they still find humour around them, and they still defy the inhuman treatment of themselves and of others. People who have had everything taken from them are still people. They are not simply ‘five hundred affected people’, nor merely the objects of violence, prejudices, crime, or xenophobia, but people with things to say who are not defined only by their recent victimisation. They need help, urgently, but they are not helpless.

In the streets, the looted shops are still locked, presenting empty facades for their now empty insides. But inside the UPM office, their owners work together to create safety, so they can return.

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