By | May 4, 2018

For the stranded foreigners, it is nowhere to go, no way to rebuild

By Greg Nicolson & Orateng Lepodise, 4 May 2018

Bangladeshi migrants fled to a madrasa in Mahikeng after their stores were looted during protests across North West. Greg Nicolson

North West, South Africa (Daily Maverick) — Protests against North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo have subsided but two weeks later hundreds of foreigners whose stores were looted remain displaced. Some are resolute while destitute, but their futures remain uncertain.

Heavy clouds sweep over the Mafikeng Game Reserve and rain starts to fall where springbok often graze. A South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) bakkie parks in a clearing.

“Two weeks later,” says John Ikgopoleng.

It’s unclear how many foreigners were displaced during the protests in Mahikeng, but it’s estimated that almost 1,000 people were forced out of communities as looters targeted foreign-owned stores. Most are stuck in temporary accommodation, relying on community donations. Their future is uncertain.

Community radio station Mahikeng FM provided rolling coverage as the demonstrations began on 18 April. Roads were barricaded. There were running skirmishes between protesters and police. The town shut down.

Initially, the protests were against North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo. As they spread across Mahikeng and into villages, they morphed into something more general, more chaotic. Service delivery challenges, poverty and unemployment are rife in the province and SAPS battled to control the wildfire demonstrations. Stores were attacked and looted.

The Ethiopians fled to the Mahikeng Scouts Centre for Excellence in Nature and the Environment, which sits inside the game reserve. Ikgopoleng, a regional manager at the Scouts centre, says the facility is struggling to cope.

Siantyme Mengshu, an Ethiopian who has been in Mahikeng for 11 years, barely escaped the crowd.

“It was terrible. There were so many people. Hundreds of them. They started by breaking the gates and fences and got in our shops and took everything from our shops. Me and my brother lost everything.”

Mengshu is staying with friends in town, but his brother took refuge at the Scouts centre with another 130 Ethiopians. Hundreds more were affected. Most arrived with no possessions. They sleep crammed on old mattresses. They were angry when they arrived and the language barrier didn’t help, says Ikgopoleng.

Mahikeng FM and the Scouts issued a plea for help and community members and NGOs provided the basics – food, blankets, clothes. Blue Ribbon has been delivering bread. Doctors Without Borders provided medical care. Morafe star and farmer Mo’Molemi brought vegetables.

The Ethiopians rush to unload piles of blankets from the Sassa bakkie. It’s the first help they have received from the government, two weeks after they were displaced. They wrap themselves in their new blankets and watch the rain fall on the reserve.

“I don’t have money, anything,” says 18-year-old Kedir Methwus. “They broke the shop, took everything.”

“By force, even the fridge,” adds Alemayewu Lopiso, 25. He tried calling the police when his store was raided but got no answer. Most of the Ethiopians affected do not have bank accounts. They’d either send profits home, invest in their businesses, or keep cash. After the looters came, they were left with nothing.

Desta Mena, a 37-year-old who has been in the country since 2003, owned seven stores in Mahikeng.

“I don’t know what happened to South Africa,” he says, standing outside the Scouts hall. “Before it was nice, now it is not nice.”

He has three children in Ethiopia and sent his earnings home to support them. One of his workers is still missing; his phone has been off since the attack. Mena shrugs. Maybe the government can help.

“It’s not for myself, it’s for my children,” he says, on the verge of tears.

North West government officials visited the displaced migrants, taking refuge in their different communities across Mahikeng on Wednesday and were said to have promised assistance. They committed to providing temporary shelter and said the foreigners’ stores would be protected in the future. It’s unclear how.

Discussions between the migrants’ representatives and government officials about providing emergency assistance continued on Thursday. Home Affairs has committed to helping replace stolen documents so they can avoid deportation.

“It’s only false promises,” says Ahmed Mohammed, a Bangladeshi community leader, of government’s commitments so far. He’s sitting at a madrasa in Danville where hundreds of Bangladeshis fled. Around 350 of the community’s stores were looted, affecting up to 600 people, he says.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has sent a team of ministers to North West to look at governance and service delivery issues and the ANC has decided to soon end Premier Supra Mahumapelo’s provincial career. Mohammed questions why foreigners should be targeted in protests about politics and services.

“We are not part of any political affiliation. Why should we have to pay for it? If people need service delivery, they’re looting our shops. If they have any political issue, they’re looting our shops,” he says.

His four stores were based in Lonely Park and it was the first time he’d been looted after almost 20 years in South Africa. The community was always welcoming, but criminals took advantage of the protests. It was too chaotic for police to help.

“This was not a xenophobic attack. This was criminal activity.”

The Bangladeshis saunter from the mosque to the madrasa, where children would usually be learning the Qur’an. Some pray outside on a tarpaulin. Most rest in classrooms with little to do. They received tents and blankets from the government and some assistance from the Muslim community, but they continue to struggle. The facility has no shower and only five toilets.

“Where do we go from here? I am even afraid to open my business now because the situation is not solved and the people might still be angry. I just wish the situation can be solved because I can’t live here for a long time without money, without anything,” says Azad Samad.

Police made hundreds of arrests after the protests and have recovered some of the stolen goods, particularly large items such as fridges, says Mohammed. But without more support from the community and government, none of the foreigners knows how they will reopen their stores or what they will do next.

“We’re fighters, we’ll try,” says Mohammed, trying to remain resolute while his community is destitute.

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