When Elias Twaibu, 30, returned home to Malawi after becoming a victim during the 2015 attacks on foreign nationals, he did not think that he would come back to South Africa, let alone suffer the same fate.
“In 2015, I was with a friend who owned a shop on Broadway when his store was attacked. A group of men armed with axes and knives came in and attacked us. They accused us of stealing their jobs, told us to leave their country, then beat us up. They demolished the store, then proceeded to steal items at my friend’s shop,” he said.
Twaibu, injured at the time, packed his bags and left for home.
“I came here because of the economic situation at home. I wanted a better life, so I travelled to Durban, but after being attacked and treated like a criminal, I thought it would be best if I went home.”
But he struggled to make ends meet and decided to return.
“Coming back to a country that stripped me of my dignity became my only option. I was so desperate and impoverished that I came back here. It’s a decision I truly regret making,” he said.
Today, Twaibu and hundreds of other Malawians want to go home, having been attacked and displaced from their homes in Burnwood in Sydenham, Durban, on Tuesday.
They claimed locals went on a rampage, broke into their homes and looted their businesses.
Attacks on foreigners started after midnight on Sunday. They began at Kenville Informal Settlement and spread to Sea Cow Lake and Burnwood. Locals were allegedly angry that foreigners were taking their jobs.
Loveness James, 22, who is nine months’ pregnant and due to give birth on Friday, said all she was left with were the clothes on her back and she and her husband were chased from their home in the early hours of Monday morning. “It was a normal day. I went to work at the salon, came home, cooked for my husband and went to bed,” she said.
At 2am they were interrupted by loud bangs on the door, which was eventually forced open.
“They started shouting, and telling us to leave, they kept chanting that we must leave their country, they hit and kicked my husband. All I could think of was my unborn baby, my water breaking and me giving birth in front of people who wanted us dead,” she said.
James said her only wish was to return to Malawi, and the only thing that could stop her was if she gave birth before she boarded a bus back home.
“The people in power keep telling us that in three days the people at Burnwood would have calmed down and we can all go back. That is not what we want. We want to go back home,” she said.
Addressing the displaced foreigners living under a marquee erected at Sherwood Hall, eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede said residents of Burnwood informal settlement were ready to welcome the Malawian nationals back.
“It was also agreed during meetings that leaders of foreigners should form part of community development forums in the area and the displaced should go back to their homes within 48 hours,” she said.
Gumede said the attack on Malawians was not xenophobic but a criminal attack, as their belongings were stolen by an angry mob.
But Gumede’s statement angered the foreigners, who questioned why Malawians in other areas such as Springfield were also attacked.
They blamed government officials for the ongoing attacks. They said that politicians on the campaign trail had used a fear of immigrants to drum up support by, for example, promising to tighten borders after the coming election to control the number of immigrants entering the country.
Police spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Thulani Zwane said three people had died and several had been injured.
“The two people who died were shot and killed on Monday night during the protests, and one died at China Mall,” he said.
Political analyst Imran Buccas said the fact that there was a significant element of xenophobia attached to the attacks was not surprising.
“In a society as unequal as ours, with all of the fractures that we have, it’s clear there’s huge contestation at the base of our social structures. This is not the first time we have seen xenophobic violence in South Africa and particularly in Durban.
“We saw toxic elements of xenophobia in 2008, and can all remember the attacks that happened in 2015 when many of us were surprised by the extent of the violence,” he said.
He said the other element complicating the context was that elections were approaching.
“When you have disenchanted parts of society like we have, be they truckers or people in search of houses and service delivery, opportunists will exploit the moment.
“As we are a few weeks away from an election, it’s an opportune time to mobilise and try to get the most out of political stakeholders. I think in the time we’re in, these protests are likely to continue,” he said.