Somalis feel the heat of delivery protests

More than 20 people have been arrested after shops reportedly belonging to Somali nationals were torched during weeklong violent protests by residents in Khutsong township, outside Carletonville, a small mining town about 50km southwest of Johannesburg, South Africa.

"We are certainly concerned about the number of attacks on Somalis taken place over the last year," said Jack Redden, spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. "Always, Somalis engaged in trade are targeted as, unlike other communities, they move out to open businesses in smaller towns."

He described the attacks as xenophobic, saying that Somalis "stand out and are much more of a target" because of their ethnicity and religious beliefs, but economics were also a factor because "local merchants accuse the Somalis of competing unfairly".

According to Superintendent Louis Jacobs, a police spokesperson in North West Province, "Foreigners were targeted [as the protests continued] at the beginning of the week. All the [affected] foreign shopkeepers, some of whose shops were burnt down, have moved out."

Somali nationals are the sixth largest group of asylum seekers in South Africa, with about 7,800 Somalis among the 30,400 recognised refugees in the country. Last year, another 3,000 Somalis applied for refugee status.

Lawyers for the protesting Khutsong residents described the violent turn of events as unfortunate. "A thuggish element has crept in with the looting and break-ins; thugs are abusing the situation," said Rudolph Jansen of Lawyers for Human Rights, a South African nongovernmental rights advocacy organisation and constitutional watchdog.

Khutsong residents have been opposed to the national government's decision to relocate their township, in the Merafong Local Municipality, from the prosperous Gauteng Province into the poorer North West Province.

Protests were sparked by longstanding shortcomings in service delivery, and escalated over a perceived lack of response by the authorities to remedy these grievances. Up until April 2006 the protests had caused R70 million (US$10 million) worth of damage to public and private property.

Jansen said the residents were to contest the demarcation issue in the Constitutional Court next week. One of the points being raised by the community in its legal papers was that the inclusion of Merafong municipality in Gauteng would give Khutsong a better chance of being earmarked for development.

There have been sporadic violent protests against the slow pace of service delivery across South Africa in the last three years, and in 2004/05 alone there were 881 illegal protests and 5,085 legal protests across 90 percent of municipalities, a trend that has highlighted the anger and resentment among those living on the margins of society, just over 13 years since apartheid ended.

Violence over the demarcation issue first flared in Khutsong in 2005, and more recent protests have seen residents barricade roads, petrol-bomb police and stone passing cars.

A spokesman for the North West provincial government, Cornelius Monama, denied accusations that the province could not afford to provide services to the municipality. "We have a legal and constitutional mandate to provide services in the area. Besides, all provinces receive an equal amount of funding from the national government to provide services."

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