Property over people

A shop owner, under the cover of darkness, retrieves the remaining stock from his already looted shop in Chapel Street. IMAGE: Jeffrey Stretton-Bell
A shop owner, under the cover of darkness, retrieves the remaining stock from his already looted shop in Chapel Street. IMAGE: Jeffrey Stretton-Bell

While student protests gripped the country, xenophobic attacks began in the formerly quiet, dusty backwater of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. Though seemingly unconnected to the student movement at Rhodes University, the institutional responses to both incidents make for important and interesting comparisons. Above all is the systematic response by institutions to protect property before people. Further it is blatantly evident that certain groups still hold more social agency than others.

Police at the student protests in Grahamstown were specifically told by the Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, that the students have a legitimate constitutional right to protest and that police were not to intervene with events on the Rhodes campus or involving peaceful protests involving his students.

The response to protests at Eastcape Midlands College, an FET college up the road where students have been protesting for five weeks, was dramatically different. An attempt to breach the gates so students could be included in management meetings apparently taking part on their behalf was met with stun grenades and a water cannon by police. These students were backed up by protesting students from Rhodes, who understood their presence, which seemed to add legitimacy to the ECM students in the eyes of authority.

Mabizela was then called to the scene to speak to those gathered and try to negotiate with the ECM management but he was barred entrance. Police placed priority on gates, roads and properties over the peaceful disruption of people and seriously antagonised the situation according to Mabizela.

Students at spaces like Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), Fort Hare and other majority black institutions have been the frontlines of student protests but have not received any mainstream coverage or the reports have been problematic. Until Wits, UCT and Rhodes became centres of protest and mobilised national conversation, the movements in other spaces were not seen as legitimate. Despite police violence against students at Parliament, the Union Buildings and Luthuli House, only the respected institutions could legitimately have taken grievances to these spaces.

In the xenophobic looting, the police created a cordon on Beaufort Street between the black centre of business and the majority white interests of Grahamstown West. According to a foreign national business owner, on Wednesday night the police stood by as their township shops were ransacked and could have intervened but most of the police presence and running battles on Thursday was to prevent the criminal element from penetrating the town or affecting “legitimate business”.

The refugees of the growing humanitarian crisis are hiding out at a safe location outside of Grahamstown. They feel totally forgotten by government and the police and are desperate simply for updates on when they can try to return to their homes and what is happening to their wives and children that are still in the location. Meanwhile in a meeting of stakeholders at the City Hall on Thursday afternoon, political games and finger pointing stopped any real solutions being put on the table. The police were not present at this meeting as they held a barrier at the Magistrate’s Court up the road and protected shops from looters in Albany road.

According to a statement by the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) the entire situation could have been avoided by quicker action by police and local government. To date, approximately 300 shops have been looted and around 500 people have been displaced in this small Eastern Cape city.

The looting appears to have been sparked by anger from the local community over police response to murders in the township. Sources within the community claim that six murders, of which five have been women, have taken place and the bodies were mutilated with sexual organs removed for muti. The community sources also claim that a male “long-bearded man” or Pakistani national is responsible.

Grahamstown police intelligence and investigators however have said the murders appear unconnected at this time. Investigations into the murders show no more than three unrelated deaths and that suspects have not been identified. UPM noted the rumours before any violence broke out and warned the police that it could escalate but their attempts appear to have had no effect on police action.

The looting has also made life in the incredibly poor township even more desperate. The shops residents use to get essentials like electricity, airtime, bread and formula have all shut down in the township. People now need to walk considerable distances or spend already scarce resources on transport to get to unaffected shops in town.

It is important not to outright criminalise the looting. Many in these spaces which have been largely forgotten by the state are taking advantage of the situation to improve their circumstances.

A shop in Albany road protected by police was under threat from Thursday night. On Friday morning police – in a negotiated settlement with gathered crowds – emptied the store of its stock but left some of the stock for the crowd and desperate scrummaging to get to the food laid out in the street was chaotic and speaks volumes of the inhumane way many of the people in these spaces are treated.

A woman clutches food she grabbed off the ground in Albany Road after police offered some of the stock of a shop to disperse awaiting crowds peacefully. Much of the food was trampled in the chaos. IMAGE: Jeffrey Stretton-Bell
A woman clutches food she grabbed off the ground in Albany Road after police offered some of the stock of a shop to disperse awaiting crowds peacefully. Much of the food was trampled in the chaos. IMAGE: Jeffrey Stretton-Bell

Interested people can donate to the refugees through an account here, take donations to Masifunde or to the Brass Monkey at Pepper Grove Mall. “At the moment it is clear that people require clothes, food (Halal), toiletries, political support to ensure that the state acts swiftly to secure their safety and support to ensure that Home Affairs helps those who have lost all their documents,” said Dr Richard Pithouse.

Words by Julia Fish

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