Monday, May 26, 2008

'Things are better without foreigners'

Residents of Itireleng informal settlement, north of Pretoria, believe they are better off now that the foreigners are gone.

In February, Itireleng exploded with xenophobic violence - a sign of things to come.

Hundreds of Somalis, Mozambicans and Zimbabweans were attacked and chased out of the township.

And since then, according to local residents, crime levels have decreased.

When the Pretoria News team visited the informal settlement recently, locals said they could finally sleep with their doors open again.

Politicians say a "third force" is behind the recent surge in xenophobic attacks in other informal settlements, but Itireleng residents said they w
ere responsible for their own actions. They wanted foreigners out.

But they admitted there were criminal elements who took advantage of the situation.
Willy Racheku, who is unemployed, said they had grown tired of living with foreigners in filthy conditions.

They called a community meeting in February to address various problems, including crime.
"At that meeting we told foreigners they're not welcome in Itireleng anymore. "The community took a decision and you can't say that all residents of Itireleng are criminals who incited violence because they reached a decision together." After the meeting, some foreigners left. Others refused, because they had nowhere to go.

Local resident Michael Meso said: "It was then that we forcefully drove them out." Several foreigners were severely beaten. Homes and shops belonging to foreigners were looted and torched. About 11 locals were arrested for public violence, but released on warning a week later. They were cheered by the crowd at the Atteridgeville magistrate's court.

It is estimated that more than 700
foreigners lived in Itireleng. Not one is left.

The residents have many grievances related to the foreigners.
Locals accused residents of the neighbouring suburbs of Laudium and Erasmia of employing foreigners. They also accused foreigners of accepting low pay and thereby "undermining" the government's efforts to implement minimum wages. Some apparently get paid R20 a day as domestic workers.

One woman said: "South Africans are used to the minimum wages now of at least R1 200 a month for domestic workers and when foreigners accept low pay, they get the jobs and we are left with nothing.

"Those who hire them are also to blame because they know there are minimum wages that have been set and should be followed." Peter Morapedi, the head of the community policing sector forum, said: "We ran them (foreigners) out in two days. We told them we don't want them back. We never want to see them here.

"We blame the government for allowing so many illegal immigrants to cross into this country.

"The government should now have refugee camps for these people because we don't want them here anymore.

"Crime has never been so low in Itireleng. Cellphone and cable theft, house robberies and break-ins, rapes, gunshots at night and especially at the weekends are no more."

Morapedi has a logbook where crimes are recorded. In the past week, the only problem was a shebeen brawl. Foreigners, mostly Zimbabweans, first settled in Itireleng in 2000. Morapedi said:
"We allowed them to stay with us because of what was happening in Zimbabwe.

But in 2004 there were so many foreigners we thought they were outnumbering us."

Residents said another reason that foreigners had to leave was that the government ignored their pleas for services.

"Every time we meet council officials they tell us there is no budget for roads, clinics, schools and all sorts of things because there are so many people who live in bad conditions in Itireleng. The government doesn't know that as many as 10 foreigners would share one shack," said Meso.

Residents also accused police for not doing enough to protect them. Police spokesperson Captain Thomas Mufamadi said: "All I can say is that we have dealt with the xenophobic issue in Itireleng. "If people have any complaints, they should approach the police station."

Residents also accused "corrupt" Home Affairs officials of "selling" documents. Foreigners were accused of falsifying South African identity documents by replacing pictures in stolen ID books with their own.

Residents said the government should have established refugee camps for all foreigners instead of allowing them to live with locals in informal settlements.

Morapedi said: "Many illegal and legal immigrants stay in informal settlements.

"But we are poor and unemployed and trying to survive with what we have, through grants and informal jobs. Foreigners are competing with us for the same things.
"Killing foreigners is bad and we never had loss of life in Itireleng, but it seems to us who live in these conditions that foreigners are more important to the government than its own people.

"That's why you see these attacks happening in informal settlements." The Itireleng locals have now warned that they are considering chasing foreigners from Laudium and Erasmia, where they have sought refuge. They said women who worked as domestic workers in Laudium, Erasmia and surrounding areas had been mugged on their way to and from work.

"We will also drive them out of Laudium and Erasmia because since they've been there crime has shot up in that area. "We have found foreigners who enter here illegally at night and we call the police to come and take them away," said Morapedi.

Residents are so determined to keep foreigners out of the area that they have established an office where foreigners, who were driven out of the area, have to report to before visiting their relatives, mostly South African wives and children, who were allowed to remain in their shacks. A South African woman married to a Mozambican said life was difficult without her husband. "It's difficult to get him home and it is not safe for him to be at home. But since so many people have been killed, I am grateful that nothing happened to him during the violence," she said.

Another said: "We sleep peacefully now. In the past we would have sleepless nights with gunshots in the middle of the night and especially at the weekends. Now the situation is normal."

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