Julia Wanjiru, a Kenyan businesswoman who has lived in Johannesburg for the past decade, is afraid.
It was just around this time last year when the woman from Thika who runs a cosmetics and jewellery business lost R40,000 (Sh280,000) worth of goods to looters in clashes that broke out in the city.
For Wanjiru, 35, the violence that broke out this week was a sad reminder. She is worried about the increasing recurrence of xenophobic attacks in the so-called Rainbow Nation.
“This is not new,” she said sombrely. “I’ve lived here for 10 years and seen the attacks on foreign nationals recur. Last year, I lost R40,000 when there was another outbreak of xenophobic attacks.”
But Wanjiru was this week defiant even in the face of the threats, saying she had no intention of leaving Johannesburg for home. But she admitted that she no longer feels safe.
She blames the violence targeted at foreign nationals on “pure hatred — sadly, by blacks against fellow black Africans.”
Grace Wangari, a food vendor in downtown Johannesburg who also spoke to the Saturday Nation, said she was threatened by a mob on Monday and told not to “ever come back” to her stall.
“As I was packing to go home, I was given a strong warning by a mob that was carrying knobkerries and sjamboks (whips) not to come the following day. I honestly don’t feel safe in South Africa. Unfortunately, this is my only source of livelihood; I’ve to take a risk and come,” she said.
Another Kenyan, Thomas Maina, who sells artefacts in malls in Johannesburg, has had to stay safe at home this week for fear of being attacked.
“It’s a terrible thing that is happening here,” he said. “We can’t move around because it’s not safe to do so.”
The 42-year-old trader from Nyeri says the perception that foreign nationals take South Africans’ jobs is wrong, as the migrants “hustle” to earn their money.
“I’ve been in South Africa for three years now and I’ve basically been self-employed. Some of our compatriots are professionals and hold jobs because they bring scarce skills to South Africa,” he said.
Wangari echoed Maina’s sentiments. “It makes no sense for them to say we are taking their jobs. I can’t be employed by anyone here. I had to raise capital to start my business,” said Wangari, who hails from Kiambu.
Evans Waweru, who has lived in Johannesburg for 10 years, fears for his children’s safety.
Some 13 schools had to shut on Thursday after reports emerged that the attacks could spread.
“I’ve my children here and it’s become frightening to send them to school because you don’t know what will happen. But what can we do? This is not our home; we are just trying to eke out a living,” he said.
The Kenyans are appealing on African leaders to engage with the South Africa government to resolve the xenophobia issue.
In Nairobi, Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Monica Juma said the embassy in Pretoria was in close contact with the government to ensure the safety of Kenyans and protection of their property.
“Reports in hand indicate two Kenyans were affected and their property destroyed. We welcome the strong condemnation of these attacks by the Government of South Africa and hope that the ethos and values of pan-Africanism will prevail over narrow nationalism, and be the bonds that glue us together as African brothers and sisters,” she wrote on her official Twitter account.
By Thursday morning, South African police had confirmed 189 arrests after several days of violence in Pretoria and Johannesburg in Gauteng as well as other cities.
At least five people were killed in the sporadic violence against foreigners and their businesses.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Wednesday condemned the looting and violence. “There can be no justification for any South African to attack people from other countries.”
The African Union issued a statement condemning the “despicable acts” of violence. This kind of violence has been cyclical.
And every outbreak has been blamed on the scramble for employment, with the perpetrators saying, “The kwerekweres (derogatory for foreigners) are taking our jobs.”
The attacks are often targeted at Nigerians, Somalis, Mozambicans, Zimbabweans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.
Ferdinand Simaanya, director of the African Diaspora Forum, said that since the beginning of the year, 37 trucks driven by foreign nationals have been razed, seven of them in the past week.
An organisation in Pretoria calling itself “Concerned Mamelodi Residents” has been distributing flyers in the capital threatening foreigners, whom it refers to as asylum seekers.
Marc Gbaffou, founder of the Africa Diaspora Forum, condemned the threats on migrant communities.
Bukhosi Mpofu, 39, a Zimbabwean who has lived in Johannesburg for 18 years and now holds South African citizenship, said “the claim that foreigners are taking jobs from South Africans is an argument that is always made to justify killings”.
He argues that some of the foreign nationals are small business owners and do not take anyone’s jobs.
The Kenyan nationals interviewed by the Saturday Nation this week are self-employed.
Mpofu said that “the drivers of xenophobic violence in South Africa are embedded in a complex interplay of the country’s past and present political, social and economic factors”.
“In my 18 years in South Africa, I’ve noticed a prevailing anti-immigrant sentiment fuelled by political scapegoating. Political leaders and officials of the national, provincial and local governments often blame foreign nationals for their failure to deliver on the political promises and satisfy the citizens’ growing expectations,” he said.
Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba has previously been accused of fanning the flames of xenophobia by the African Diaspora Forum when he linked undocumented foreigners to crime.
Zulu King Zwelithini was also accused of making “reckless utterances” that allegedly incited the 2015 attacks.
Mpofu said that due to the continued scapegoating, many South African citizens perceive foreign nationals as a threat that needs to be eliminated by any means necessary.
“The perception is stronger among the majority of citizens living in poor townships and informal settlements, where they meet and fiercely compete with equally poor African immigrants for the scarce resources and opportunities,” he said.