During the xenophobic attacks in Kathorus in 2008, the Kathorus Concerned Residents (KCR), a community organisation, played a central role in discussing and implementing actions to protect foreign nationals. Bheki Xaba argues that this was possible because of the strength and implantation of the organisation in the community.
KCR and the xenophobic attacks
Kathorus Concerned Residents is a community- based organisation in the Kathorus area (that is Katlehong, Thokoza and Vosloorus). As part of the emerging social movements in South Africa, KCR started in 1995 with campaigns against the evictions of working class and poor residents in the east of Johannesburg. The main concerns of KCR are evictions, social service cut-offs, land for housing, free education, free health care services and women abuse. KCR raises awareness and empowers the members of the community to stand on their own, embark on protest marches and peaceful picketing.
The founders of KCR were initially active members of the South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO). After realising that SANCO did not respond to their problems, the Kathorus community members decided to form an organisation aimed at supporting the struggles for access to health care, water, electricity and road infrastructure, as well as housing, education, water, and other basic services.
In the context of the existing catastrophic rise of unemployment, retrenchments, and poverty in the townships, it has become extremely difficult for working class families to honour housing bond repayment schedules. Many working class families in the Kathorus area lost their homes as a result of the privatisation of housing and the ensuing evictions. As part of the struggle for housing and human rights, the KCR has led a campaign against evictions in the area. This campaign however, has been met with state-led repression, and a number of leading members of the KCR were arrested several times and intimidated by the police.
Xenophobic attacks in kathorus communities
It was on a Saturday morning when xenophobic attacks became a reality to the Kathorus communities. We, from Extension 2 in Thokoza, were on our way to Daveyton to organise new members for the KCR . When passing the local shopping complex, we noticed a group of people carrying sticks as if they were waiting an attack. The place looked deserted, as all the usual vendors were not there. When we asked bystanders what was going on, they told us that the violence had started the previous night. A group of people had attacked the foreign nationals that live in the nearby informal settlement. The foreign nationals were unjustly accused of a number of transgressions, such as owning several shacks, involvement in criminal activities, and taking away job opportunities from SA citizens.
We realised that the terrible events that were happening in Alexandra were now about to take place in Kathorus and decided to do something about the situation before it became uncontrollable. We informed other members of the KCR about the situation and asked them to convene a public meeting of the community. We wanted to make sure that everyone was informed about what was happening in order to implement adequate measures to protect foreign nationals. In fact, we had already told foreign nationals in our area who had wanted to run away a few days before these events, that they would be safe with us and that they would be in danger if they left. In the public meeting we addressed the issue of violence against foreign nationals. We realised that it is mostly South Africans with criminal intentions who were instigating these attacks. Some of them wanted to steal the goods the immigrants sold or wanted to get them out of the RDP houses which had been sold to them. Since we know the non-South African members of our communities very well and live on good terms with them, we agreed that we did not want xenophobic attacks to happen in our area, and that we needed to ring fence our area in order to prevent the attacks from spilling over. In order to do this, leaders from our community who live at the borders of Extension 2 were on alert day and night and would report if rioting crowds tried to enter the area. However, no rioting crowds tried to do so, because we announced publicly that we were not going to tolerate violence and looting. We made it clear that we would not allow criminal intentions among our people to cause community members to act against each other, as had happened in other places.
We therefore asked foreign nationals to stay with us, and we made sure they were safe. This seemed important to us because we realised that the attacks were not perpetuated by strangers only, but also by residents who were familiar with the area. On the same Saturday afternoon, I passed by Twala section and saw a group of people watching foreign nationals being beaten up, and fleeing for their lives. On the way back home I realised that gunshots were coming from the hostels on the other side of the border of our district. I phoned one of the indunas (traditional leaders in the hostels) to ask what had happened. He told me that he was in Mpumalanga Province but that I needed to call the head of the indunas. He gave me the phone number of Mr Mlambo, who said that he could not assist in protecting the attacked people, because they were foreign nationals.
I protested and demanded he call the police and organise an urgent meeting to address the people about the potential of violence. I pointed out that it would damage his reputation in society if he did not ensure that all the leaders were activated in deflecting the violent attacks and participating in peace initiatives. I emphasized that all of the indunas would be blamed if people were killed during these events. He agreed that it was important to stop the violence and immediately called a meeting to stop the attacks. The shooting stopped and people started gathering for the public meeting where they wanted to make sure that everyone was informed of the decision to stop the attacks. But then the police arrived and asked the crowd through loudspeakers to stop attacking other people and to disperse, and actually started shooting at people who were on the way to join the gathering. The police said that this gathering would perpetuate the violence further. We did not want to argue with them and postponed the to the next morning. No further attacks were reported that night in our area but unfortunately, it was reported that in Katlehong three people were killed.
On the other side of our section, the violence started on Friday night until Sunday midnight despite several community meetings which were organised by Councillors and their alliances. At least two people were killed during the continuing attacks and shops were vandalised and looted. Most of these shops were owned by non- South Africans, which proved that criminals succeeded in taking advantage of the situation.
The significance of building alliances with other sections of the communities
Members of the KCR participated in the march organised by the Coalition Against Xenophobia (CAX) and took part in the Khanya College study group to acquire more information. At the study group, stakeholders from affected communities were able to share their views and experiences on the xenophobic attacks. Given that the violent attacks occurred in different sections of our community, we realized that it is important for our organisation to build alliances within Kathorus.
We managed to discuss the incidents with people from several parts of the community and we believe that they understood and respected the necessity to review and discuss what had happened. In order to sustain peace, stability and development, it is now vital to open up the same platform to other members of the community and establish an informal relationship with these sectors. We also need to discuss basic political principles because it is obvious that the rights of foreign nationals who come to South Africa to work are not accepted by all parts of our society unanimously. We did, however, fail to involve people of some sections of Kathorus, such as Phola Park, because they do not recognize KCR as an organisation which represents the community. They only makes use of the KCR network when it comes to elections.
During the discussions on the xenophobic attacks in the study group meeting, some activists used derogatory names when speaking about foreign nationals. This is unacceptable.
Organisations need to strengthen and deepen their political education so that members understand the purpose of being an activist in a social movement. The use of derogatory language must be condemned at all costs, and organisations need to find ways to ensure that this issue will be addressed and changed in future.
What can be learnt from the xenophobic attacks
Youth play a big role in society. Reports on xenophobic attacks stated that youths were at the core of these unprecedented outbreaks. However, the youth in Kathorus was disciplined and adhered to the principles of our organisation. We also learnt that leaders of community organisations earn respect through their positive actions in their community and sincere interaction with the people.
The other lesson we learnt was that information needs to be spread to all people equally and not only when problems arise. Normally a strong leadership structure in communities which supports values and principles will know how to find a way to solve problems of the communities.
In this respect I think that it is important for foreign nationals to participate in community struggles, in order to be viewed as people who belong to that place and are seen as active participants of this community.
KCR aims at achieving a permanent stability and lasting peace in our community and across Ekurhuleni. We want the whole society to become free of violence and harassment. The main challenges to our organisation are new: the abuse of women and crime. We feel that as an organisation of social justice, there is a need to take up these issues as part of our programmes since one of the organisation’s aims and objectives is to defend and protect the vulnerable members of the society. We need to engage in campaigns and raise awareness through educational programmes in our communities. Each member of our communities need to become aware of these issues and be able to discuss them with each other and our leaders. This is an important requirement if we want to succeed in our struggles.