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Jo'Burg Days: Caught In The Act

Barbara Durlacher tells a sad story prompted by recent terrible events in Johannesburg.

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Report from citizen newspaper – Johannesburg. June 2008

“Over the course of the last week, Parkview police arrested three illegal immigrants , along with 17 people for crimes including loitering, drinking in public; theft, theft of motor vehicle, common theft, attempted armed robbery, pointing a firearm and common assault.

Norwood police arrested 62 illegal immigrants and 59 people for crimes including assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm and theft...”

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“Greb the bags, here – you, Saleef – take this one, and run for the nearest road. Muna, you carry the baby and I’ll greb the radio and the tv – I dunno if I’ll be able to kerry them, they’re bled heeevy. Maar, ek mos probeer.”

Working quickly, Saleem tried to get what he could out of the shack before the flames from the neighbouring shelters engulfed their small dwelling, but despite all his efforts, their blankets, the cooking pans, the paraffin stove and the bedding were gone within minutes when the conflagration reached their shack.

Running for the safety of the nearest road where the lights of passing cars gave them some protection from the rampaging mob baying for the blood of the mwkwerekwere, Saleem and Muna were frozen by their realisation of what had happened. Never, during their 20 years of peaceful co-existence in the run-down shabby streets of Alexandria, had they felt threatened before. Saleem’s spaza-shop was a popular meeting place for locals, who knew they could always get a cup of sugar, two eggs, five cigarettes or a bottle of cold drink with a promise of payment by the end of the week. Saleem never demanded the money, but he also never forgot – and after a decent interval, always found some tactful way of getting them to pay. There were no bad feelings, he handled every incident with care and understanding – but at the same time, everyone knew that if you came to him with the usual opening “Saleem, please borrow me...,” whilst he would never hesitate to let you have what you needed, he got payment in the end.

Muna was a good mother - she loved her two children – Fatima the baby, and Saleef their six-year-old son. She made sure they were clean and tidy, and that Saleef attended the little school run by volunteers with the other small boys with whom he played noisy children’s games every day.

Although they missed their home country, they had gradually got used to living in Johannesburg with its rich mixture of nationalities. Rubbing shoulders with Nigerians, Congolese, fellow Somalies and Mocambicans they enjoyed the wide range of cultures and languages. Muna had friends amongst the other women; they shared a similar life-style. Even if their present circumstances were very different from the middle-class life they had known in their home country where Saleem was a senior inspector in the tax department, they were glad to escape the constant bombing and civil unrest that had raged in Somalia and Ethiopia for most of their lifetime.

Despite their huge change of circumstances since coming to South Africa, they were still hopeful that things would improve and that before long, with Saleem’s hard work and God’s help, their lives would change.

“Eeeow.....,” screeched the mob, chasing after the fleeing couple and catching Muna and the children as she tried to hide in a dark alley amongst the shacks. “Crack, thud, slash.....” Saleem’s heart stopped as he heard the sound of the pangas and machetes landing on his wife’s unprotected head. His heart wept for her. There was nothing he could do, nothing, nothing to help her in her hour of need.... He heard the stifled whimpers of the baby and a short cry from Muna as she tried to protect Saleef’s head from the blows raining down on them, then – nothing...

Then Saleem knew that it was over and gathering up the skirts of his jellabelah, he ran as if the devil was after him. He had to get away from the mob before they turned on him and cut his head from his shoulders as they had done with Muna. Crazed with blood lust, nothing could stop them now. Unarmed as he was, he could only flee. Throwing down the items he was carrying, he ran for his life.

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Sheltering on a warm corner of the street, Saleem’s blood thudded in his ears. His stomach was empty, his mouth dry and his throat sore. His body was deathly cold; he had been sleeping in a deserted alleyway for four nights covered only with flattened cardboard boxes. Except for half a hamburger bun he had found in a trash can, he had not eaten or drunk for six days. He wished he could die. Without his wife Muna, his beloved son Saleef and Fatima, his baby daughter, what was there to live for? His shop and small shack were burnt to the ground, after all these years of hard work and struggle, he had nothing. Now there was nothing – nothing to live for and nothing to hope for.

Blue roof-lights blazing, the Police patrol car drew up to the curb and three burly black policemen jumped down shouting. “Hey you! Over there! Jy, jy skelm! Kom hier, jou bliksem!” and without giving him a chance to protest, they grabbed Saleem and threw him into the back of the patrol van together with a bunch of other thieves and other ne’er-do-wells.

“Send him to Lindela [the notorious camp for illegal refugees] for repatriation to his own country,” snapped the magistrate in sentencing.

And Saleem knew his chances of a life in a new country were gone forever.

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