“Roho Mzungu,” shrieks a group of barefoot children in prayer caps as they run past a mildewed wanted poster, crudely plastered onto an ancient narrow lane on Mombasa Island. Translated from Swahili, the youngsters’ cries simply mean: White Ghost. It has become the latest moniker for perhaps the most unlikely international terrorist of our generation.
I am back in Mombasa after an absence of two years and there is still only one name on the lips of local people. Today, in the schools and playgrounds of coastal Kenya, a region that once welcomed a million tourists every year, a flame-haired British housewife plagues the nightmares of local children. To the local media she is also known as the White Widow and her name is whispered in fear in churches and teeming coastal markets.
Thirty-one-year-old Samantha Lewthwaite, a white Muslim convert and the fanatical widow of Jermaine Lindsay, the 7/7 bomber who killed 26 people when he blew up a Piccadilly Line Tube train near London’s King’s Cross in 2005, remains at large in East Africa today, known to be in possession of significant quantities of explosives, cash, ammunition and a zeal so deeply entrenched her name is whispered in Al-Shabaab training camps with some reverence.
Kenya has been a primary target for Al-Shabab fighters ever since Nairobi sent thousands of troops to fight in Somalia. The Africa Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has used troops from various African countries to fight the militants since 2007, but Kenya’s ramped-up involvement since October 2011, has been instrumental in pushing Al-Shabaab out of its most important strongholds, including Mogadishu and the port town of Kismayo.
The enduring role of a British housewife at the core of East Africa’s terror shows how complex the task of combatting the growth of attacks is. As we approach the anniversary of the Westgate Mall attack, global terrorist related deaths have leaped by almost one third as the world enters a deadly new phase in the cycle of violence.
Data compiled by Maplecroft, a British risk consultancy, found that over the last 12 months, global deaths have risen 30% compared to the previous five-year average. Africa, as a continent, has been among the hardest hit. With terrorism incidents in Libya doubling in the last year, violence is having a toxic impact on its economy, especially its oil sector, while attacks in Egypt have hit its tourism industry and of course Kenya, which has been hit by increasing attacks.
For Kenya in particular, there is arguably more to lose from adverse publicity. According to Maplecroft, June represented Kenya’s bloodiest month since the Westgate shopping mall attack, with 69 deaths and at least seven wounded, with a single Al-Shabaab attack on a Mpeketoni village in Lamu County responsible for 48 of the deaths.
In Mombasa, the impact of terrorism on the local economy was stark. Occupancy in most of the major resorts strung out along the coast was as low as 10%. Kenya’s tourism, which has provided 15% of GDP in recent years, is in tatters. Warnings last month by the British and other foreign governments prompted flustered tour companies to evacuate clients from Kenya’s coastal tourist hub, Mombasa. Today, the luxurious resorts on Lamu Island stand empty. Operators admit it could take years to restore confidence.
The reason? Mombasa is a fertile recruiting ground for Al-Shabaab, working through radical mosques and clerics. These leaders portray the conflict across the border as jihad, which has an energizing appeal to many youth. The myth of Lewthwaite has curiously become part of that dynamic.
Lewthwaite’s list of alleged cohorts is as deadly as it is long. United States (US) intelligence sources believe that networks linked to Dawood Ibrahim, one of the world’s most wanted men, are bankrolling the deadly Al Qaeda cell Lewthwaite is part of. Dawood, the head of Indian crime network D-Company, is currently the most wanted man in Asia and the ruthless driving force of 5,000 foot soldiers involved in everything from drugs trafficking to contract killing. Currently on the Interpol wanted list, his association with Al Qaeda in Africa has dramatically grown in the last two years.
What is undeniable is Lewthwaite has funding from somewhere and she is backing it up with action. Lewthwaite was recently identified as the brains behind a bold operation to free her terrorist lover, Jermaine Grant, who was arrested in Mombasa in December 2011 in a raid. Kenyan police believe the audacious attempt to rescue Grant, as he was taken from prison to a Mombasa court to face trial, was coordinated by Lewthwaite after two suspected terrorists were stopped crossing into Kenya from Tanzania with bullet-proof vests and face masks. Both men claimed they were acting under the direction of Lewthwaite.
A source from the Kenyan Anti-Terrorism Police Unit told me that she could still be in Mombasa.
“We believe that for some time she was in fact hiding in plain sight here in Mombasa, working her identities between a now blonde western tourist and burka-clad Muslim. Mombasa is Kenya’s second largest city and she knows the city well. The problem for us is, although not quite a master of disguise, she is afforded the right to wear a hijab or a burka and this simplest of methods allows her to travel. To catch her we must lift the veils of 100,000 women and she knows this is her biggest weapon.”
Lewthwaite’s incredible life on the run is a remarkable twist to an enduring story that is made for Hollywood. Over three years ago, Lewthwaite was forced to flee a terrorist safe-house in Mombasa after Kenyan Police received a tip-off that an Al Qaeda-linked terror cell she was part of was planning to blow up hotels and shopping centers in the city over Christmas.
Instead of the suspects they expected, the police discovered an empty shell. A hastily abandoned bomb-making factory containing batteries, hydrogen peroxide and wires. Crucially they also found a false passport left behind in panic by one of the alleged terrorists, a white woman, later identified as Lewthwaite.
Since then, it has been shadow chasing for the authorities. Relentlessly hunted by the Kenyan Anti-Terrorism Police Unit, and partially supported towards the end of last year by Scotland Yard’s elite SO15 anti-terror squad, the White Widow has remarkably eluded capture.
Frustrated at Lewthwaite’s sophisticated field skills, Kenyan investigators increasingly believe that the Aylesbury mother of three might have played a small, but influential, part in the 2005 London bombings and is now so mired in jihad she has abandoned her three young children to enable her to stay on the run.
The information surrounding Lewthwaite’s current whereabouts is believed to have been sourced under interrogation from known associates of the Briton, including Marianna Issa Mohammed, a female terrorist who was arrested in Kisamayo, Somalia.
Claims that she had boasted of prior knowledge of the London bombings within the terrorist community are particularly remarkable considering that in the wake of the tragedy, Lewthwaite went public on her horror at her dead husband’s act of terror and she was even placed into protective custody by Scotland Yard.
Suspiciously, it wasn’t until a week after the 2005 bombing, that Lewthwaite contacted her local police to register her husband missing. At the time, she claimed they were having relationship troubles. Lewthwaite then later refused to accept Scotland Yard’s insistence that her husband had been the bomber, until investigators produced evidence and she was apparently dragged screaming from her home claiming her husband’s mind was poisoned by radicals.
The White Widow’s journey from suburban Britain to Somalia is all the more astonishing because her father was in fact a British soldier who served in Northern Ireland. Her parents separated when she was 11, which friends claim badly affected her, leading to her being comforted by Muslim neighbors in the town.
After starting A-levels in religious studies, the teenage Samantha decided to convert to Islam, aged 15 and began wearing a hijab and swapped her jeans and T-shirt for a salwar kameez, a traditional Asian tunic and trousers. At 17, she went one step further, changing her name to Asmantara.
As her radicalization continued, Lewthwaite, described by her teachers as precocious and intelligent, enrolled for a degree in religion and politics at the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Around this time, she met Jamaican-born Islamic convert Jermaine Lindsay on an internet chatroom for Muslims and they later met face to face at an anti-war rally in London. The couple married in an Islamic ceremony in the front room of a terraced house in Aylesbury in October 2002 before just four witnesses. None of Lewthwaite’s family attended.
“My father Andy didn’t approve and stayed away and my mum just couldn’t make it. I was his youngest daughter. He found it hard enough when I converted to Islam, without marrying a Muslim I had hardly met,” she later recalled.
In 2004, the couple’s first son was born, which is when Lewthwaite claims her husband started to spend time at radical mosques. She has said he was a peaceful man before these visits. Lewthwaite was seven months pregnant with their second child when Lindsay launched his 7/7 attacks. Police believed that she was also a victim of the terrible events and placed her in protective custody after her house was torched in an arson attack.
But her precise movements since the bombings are harder to follow. Within two years of the London attacks, the widow met a new lover, identified by her family only as a Moroccan Muslim from Birmingham, and she later gave birth to her third child in August 2009. It was shortly after this point that Lewthwaite went off the grid.
In late 2010, Lewthwaite is believed to have traveled to South Africa on her own passport but later left with a new identity: that of Natalie Faye Webb, a 26-year-old South African-born nurse based in Essex, England, who was later confirmed as a victim of identity theft. At this point, it is believed Lewthwaite spent time at a training camp in Somalia.
By August 25, 2011, the Briton entered Kenya from Tanzania with her three children, also on false passports, where she is believed to have met with her current lover, Habib Saleh Gani, an Al-Shabaab sleeper, in Mombasa. Lewthwaite is also thought to have made contact with a third British terrorist, Jermaine Grant, 29, from Newham, East London.
By linking herself to Al-Shabaab, Lewthwaite had chosen one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations on the planet. The group, which has imposed a strict version of Sharia law in areas under its control, including the stoning to death of women accused of adultery and amputating the hands of thieves, was responsible for a double suicide bombing in Kampala, which killed 76 people watching the 2010 World Cup final at a local rugby club.
Chillingly, a cache of intelligence, found on the body of Al Qaeda’s African leader and inside the bullet-ridden truck he tried to ram through a Somali government checkpoint, provides a chilling look at the global aspirations of Al-Shabaab. The meticulously prepared documents that detail plots for a kidnapping and attacks on London’s prestigious Eton College, Jewish neighborhoods and the posh Ritz and Dorchester hotels, were uncovered last year when senior Al Qaeda leader Fazul Abdullah Mohammed was shot dead by Somali forces.
According to anti-terrorist police, Lewthwaite seemed the perfect operative. Able to seamlessly mix with tourists on surveillance trips but also able to revert back into strict Muslim society in a burka, her logistical skills proved to be invaluable.
On arrival, it seems Lewthwaite blended quickly into the tourist capital of Mombasa where she operated three safe houses in high-end estates in the north of the city. In the Kisauni area, she lived in a house belonging to a wife of Musa Hussein Abdi, a British-born terrorist who lived in Africa for a long time and who was killed in Somalia last year alongside Fazul Mohammed. The latter was the mastermind of the bombings on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
Lewthwaite then moved to Shanzu, a magnet for British tourists, where she lived in a five-bedroom villa paying four month’s rent upfront. She used her western appearance to mingle with holidaymakers and carry out reconnaissance on security in major hotels. But on December 19, 2011, anti-terrorism police raided the house. How Lewthwaite escaped before the raid is a mystery.
Police recovered 60 bullets, two magazines for AK-47 rifles and bomb-making material including acetone, hydrogen peroxide, ammonium nitrate, sulphur, lead nitrate chemicals, AA-sized batteries, an electric switch and a piece of conductive wire.
Ahmed Hassan, a resident of the Kisauni apartment block, says Lewthwaite would leave the house in both western clothes and in her burka.
“Wearing a burka will not get you into an international hotel but wearing a bikini will and a sarong will. It is obvious now that she was the terrorist’s main spy,” he says.
Following the raid, Lewthwaite fled with a laptop, cash and bomb-making material to another safe house barely 20 kilometers away from where anti-terrorism officers believe she dished out equipment and money to field terrorists under the noses of unsuspecting neighbors and police.
But as the net tightened Lewthwaite’s London associate, Jermaine Grant, was arrested in central Mombasa. Grant’s arrest is significant. Within days the White Widow’s latest hideout was exposed again. But, when officers led a raid on the property in January, Lewthwaite had somehow left shortly before and was last seen driving towards the Tanzanian border crossing, Lunga Lunga.
Lewthwaite didn’t raise her head in Mombasa again until June 24 last year when witnesses claim they saw a white woman throw grenades into a crowded bar, killing three people, including a nine-year-old boy, and horrifically injuring 30. Since that last incident, she has been true to her nickname. A ghostly presence linked to sporadic attacks across Kenya including the Westgate Mall.
In Mombasa, Lewthwaite’s case file remains open at the regional Law Courts, where she has been charged in absentia. Court documents indicate that Lewthwaite and her lover Gani are charged with being in possession of explosive materials and conspiracy to commit a felony. The files also allege that Lewthwaite is bankrolling a Mombasa terror cell whose members include Grant.
Jacob Ondari of Kenya’s directorate of public prosecutions believes Lewthwaite is highly dangerous.
“She is not just a small cog in this terrorist machine; she has links to the top. I will be calling for the death penalty when she is finally caught. That would be our prayer,” he says.
In recent months, The Muslim Youth Centre, a radical Kenyan organization believed to have terrorist links, has used the myth of Lewthwaite as a recruitment tool, boasting of her escape from the world’s most sophisticated intelligence agencies. The group has also posted a recent video of a hooded British Al-Shabaab operative calling for holy war in Somalia in a bid to further boast their international credentials.
Perhaps most tellingly, using Lewthwaite’s image on its website and Twitter feed, the group recently referenced the Hollywood blockbuster, The Thomas Crown Affair, in which Pierce Brosnan plays an art thief who carries off a heist by dressing dozens of accomplices in identical clothing as him, allowing him to escape right under the noses of the police.
According to Phyllis Muema, director of the Kenya Community Support Center, a not-for-profit group in Mombasa that works on rehabilitating Somali fighters, Lewthwaite is a powerful recruitment tool.
“To have a white western woman on their side provides Al-Shabaab with a major weapon. For illiterate and impoverished young Muslim men it is easy to be radicalized, but to follow a white woman with access to money from abroad and with her education and intelligence is a significant allure,” she says.
For Lewthwaite’s family, the uncertainty of her children’s fate remains the hardest pill to swallow. Her grandmother in Northern Ireland, Elizabeth Allen, wears a panic alarm and has been told to contact police immediately if Lewthwaite arrives at her home in Banbridge, where she spent part of her youth. Her mother, Christine Allen, claims she hasn’t heard from her daughter in years.
My source within the Kenyan Anti-Terrorism Police Unit reveals that they have believed for several months that although Lewthwaite is still with her lover, Gani, she is no longer on the run with her children.
“We believe that she is separated from her children at the moment to enable her to remain at large. Even under a burka her footprint is compromised by the children. We have artists’ impressions of them and Lewthwaite knows they are her biggest weakness. She cannot hide them under burkas. We believe they have been smuggled over the Somali border and are being cared for in a training camp.”
The claims are backed up by postings on the widow’s closed down blog which stated: “I advise you to raise your children in the cult of jihad and martyrdom and to instil in them a love for religion and death.”
The source added: “The truth is there was no mention of children from eye witnesses in the final property she was linked to and interrogations since have identified her as operating with Habib only. It wouldn’t be the first time a jihadist has made such a sacrifice. They sacrifice everything they have for this life.”
VE DAY MARKS THE END OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR-BUT THE WORLD IS STILL AT WAR
Just like the world is desperately seeking a cure to end the coronavirus pandemic which has killed over 275,000 people so far and leaving a trail of human, economic and social misery, the world too must find a way to end wars, or else we may be defeated as a civilization.
The world commemorated the 75th Anniversary to mark the end of the 2nd World War also called VE Day on May 08, 2020.
With her nation, and much of the world still in lockdown, due to COVID 19, England’s Queen marked 75 years since the allied victory in Europe with a poignant televised address. From Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth said, “ the wartime generation knew that the best way to honour those who did not come back from the war, was to ensure that it didn’t happen again”.
But the world is still at war. Proxy wars or localised conflicts are wrecking havoc on human development and humanity in virtually every corner of the world. By the end of 2018, wars, violence and persecution have driven record numbers of over 70 million people from their homes worldwide, according to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. This is the largest ever displacement of humanity, post 2nd World War.
Never has the appeal by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres been more pertinent: “The world is in pieces; we need world peace.”
The United States signed a historic deal with Afghanistan that outlines a timetable and exit plan for American troops, setting the stage for the potential end to nearly 18 years of war in Afghanistan. The UN Secretary General welcomed the US-Taliban peace agreement on February 29, 2020. The United States also won the unanimous backing of the UN Security Council to this ambitious peace deal on March 10, 2020.
The implementation of the peace agreement will need leadership, courage and resolve and there will be spoilers who will attempt to upend the peace process. The road to peace will be characterized by violence, set-backs and numerous false starts, but it will need diplomacy, determination and drive to keep the peace process on track.
Hubris must not prolong the agony of this appalling war.
The war has cost over $2 trillion and killed more than 2,400 American soldiers and 38,000 Afghan civilians. Casualties among Afghan security forces are estimated to have reached around 40,000 between 2007 and 2017.
Wars are appalling. As a combat veteran, I have witnessed first-hand how armed conflicts have transformed some of our finest soldiers into shells of the people I once knew. Combat is savage, it is brutal, it is reckless, it diminishes us as human beings and jeopardizes our humanity.
General William Sherman once said, “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, and more desolation. War is hell.”
There are no winners in Afghanistan, but let’s consider the consequences on all the women and men who fought in it.
Today, research backs up what soldiers have described for decades, and what was once called shell shock or combat fatigue. We have terms like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), chronic depression, cognitive impairment, and traumatic brain injury to help explain the symptoms suffered by active and returning soldiers.
For a long time, many of the grim statistics about war centred on fatalities and did not include the conflicts’ deep mental wounds. Today we have a better understanding of the kind of moral and psychological toll wars take on soldiers, their families, and communities.
The United States is a leader in the understanding of psychological and emotional damage to soldiers and has taken some steps to address their mental health. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have left between 11% and 20% of military personnel suffering from PTSD. As many as 375,000 US veterans have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries between 2000 and 2017, mostly caused by explosions.
But suicides in the US armed forces have continued to rise in recent years, reaching record levels in 2018 when there were 25 deaths per 100,000 service members. Former defence secretary Leon Panetta once said that the “epidemic” of military suicide was “one of the most frustrating problems” he had faced.
More than $350 billion has already gone to medical and disability care for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Experts say that more than half of that spending belongs to the Afghanistan effort.
Homelessness among veterans is pervasive, and soldiers still struggle to access benefits and healthcare if they suffer from mental health issues rather than from physical wounds. At any given time in the US, more than 40,000 veterans are homeless, constituting around 9% of all homeless adults in the country.
In the United Kingdom, spurred by a dozen suicides among Afghan war veterans in just two months, the government expedited new mental health programs to help deal with former military members’ PTSD and addiction.
What does this now mean for the Afghan security forces? They and their families do not have the same support structures.
All this ‘hell’, but to what end? Afghanistan remains one of the world’s largest sources of refugees and migrants. Since 2004 alone, more than 1.8 million Afghans have become internally displaced. Afghanistan’s human development and progress has been set back by decades. Women and children have suffered the most and countless are emotionally and psychologically scarred for life.
While we like to see soldiers as stoic and heroic, we must open our eyes to the fact that wars scar minds as well as bodies, often in ways medical science cannot yet comprehend.
Just like the world is desperately seeking a cure to end the coronavirus pandemic which has killed over 275,000 people so far and leaving a trail of human, economic and social misery, the world too must find a way to end wars, or else we may be defeated as a civilization.
Siddharth Chatterjee, is the United Nations resident coordinator to Kenya. He has served with the UN and the Red Cross Movement in various parts of the world affected by conflicts and humanitarian crisis. He is also a decorated Special Forces veteran and a Princeton University alumnus. Follow him on Twitter @sidchat1
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
Climate Explained: How Much Of Climate Change Is Natural? How Much Is Man-made?
How much climate change is natural? How much is man made?
As someone who has been working on climate change detection and its causes for over 20 years I was both surprised and not surprised that I was asked to write on this topic by The Conversation. For nearly all climate scientists, the case is proven that humans are the overwhelming cause of the long-term changes in the climate that we are observing. And that this case should be closed.
Despite this, climate denialists continue to receive prominence in some media which can lead people into thinking that man-made climate change is still in question. So it’s worth going back over the science to remind ourselves just how much has already been established.
Successive reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – mandated by the United Nations to assess scientific evidence on climate change – have evaluated the causes of climate change. The most recent special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees confirms that the observed changes in global and regional climate over the last 50 or so years are almost entirely due to human influence on the climate system and not due to natural causes.
What is climate change?
First we should perhaps ask what we mean by climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines climate change as:
a change in the state of the climate that can be identified by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer.
The causes of climate change can be any combination of:
- Internal variability in the climate system, when various components of the climate system – like the atmosphere and ocean – vary on their own to cause fluctuations in climatic conditions, such as temperature or rainfall. These internally-driven changes generally happen over decades or longer; shorter variations such as those related to El Niño fall in the bracket of climate variability, not climate change.
- Natural external causes such as increases or decreases in volcanic activity or solar radiation. For example, every 11 years or so, the Sun’s magnetic field completely flips and this can cause small fluctuations in global temperature, up to about 0.2 degrees. On longer time scales – tens to hundreds of millions of years – geological processes can drive changes in the climate, due to shifting continents and mountain building.
- Human influence through greenhouse gases (gases that trap heat in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide and methane), other particles released into the air (which absorb or reflect sunlight such as soot and aerosols) and land-use change (which affects how much sunlight is absorbed on land surfaces and also how much carbon dioxide and methane is absorbed and released by vegetation and soils).
What changes have been detected?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report showed that, on average, the global surface air temperature has risen by 1°C since the beginning of significant industrialisation (which roughly started in the 1850s). And it is increasing at ever faster rates, currently 0.2°C per decade, because the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have themselves been increasing ever faster.
The oceans are warming as well. In fact, about 90% of the extra heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases is being absorbed by the oceans.
A warmer atmosphere and oceans are causing dramatic changes, including steep decreases in Arctic summer sea ice which is profoundly impacting arctic marine ecosystems, increasing sea level rise which is inundating low lying coastal areas such as Pacific island atolls, and an increasing frequency of many climate extremes such as drought and heavy rain, as well as disasters where climate is an important driver, such as wildfire, flooding and landslides.
Multiple lines of evidence, using different methods, show that human influence is the only plausible explanation for the patterns and magnitude of changes that have been detected.
This human influence is largely due to our activities that release greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, as well sunlight absorbing soot. The main sources of these warming gases and particles are fossil fuel burning, cement production, land cover change (especially deforestation) and agriculture.
Most of us will struggle to pick up slow changes in the climate. We feel climate change largely through how it affects weather from day-to-day, season-to-season and year-to-year.
The weather we experience arises from dynamic processes in the atmosphere, and interactions between the atmosphere, the oceans and the land surface. Human influence on the broader climate system acts on these processes so that the weather today is different in many ways from how it would have been.
One way we can more clearly see climate change is by looking at severe weather events. A branch of climate science, called extreme event or weather attribution, looks at memorable weather events and estimates the extent of human influence on the severity of these events. It uses weather models run with and without measured greenhouse gases to estimate how individual weather events would have been different in a world without climate change.
As of early 2019, nearly 70% of weather events that have been assessed in this way were shown to have had their likelihood and/or magnitude increased by human influence on climate. In a world without global warming, these events would have been less severe. Some 10% of the studies showed a reduction in likelihood, while for the remaining 20% global warming has not had a discernible effect. For example, one study showed that human influence on climate had increased the likelihood of the 2015-2018 drought that afflicted Cape Town in South Africa by a factor of three.
Adapting to a changing climate
Weather extremes underlie many of the hazards that damage society and the natural environment we depend upon. As global warming has progressed, so have the frequency and intensity of these hazards, and the damage they cause.
Minimising the impacts of these hazards, and having mechanisms in place to recover quickly from the impacts, is the aim of climate adaptation, as recently reported by the Global Commission on Adaptation.
As the Commission explains, investing in adaptation makes sense from economic, social and ethical perspectives. And as we know that climate change is caused by humans, society cannot use “lack of evidence” on its cause as an excuse for inaction any more.
The Rage And Tears That Tore A Nation
Snapshots of the outrage against foreign nationals and protests against sexual offenders in South Africa in recent weeks, captured by FORBES AFRICA photojournalist Motlabana Monnakgotla.
As the continent’s second-biggest economy, South Africa attracts migrants from the rest of Africa. But mired in its own problems of unemployment and political instability, September saw a serious outbreak of attacks by South Africans on foreign nationals and foreign-owned businesses. And they have been ugly.
The spark that fueled the raging fire was in Pretoria, the country’s capital, when a taxi driver was shot dead by a foreign national who was selling drugs to a youngster in the central business district (CBD).
The altercation caused a riot and the taxi industry brought the CBD to a standstill, blocking intersections. It did not stop there; a week later, about 60 kilometers from the capital in Malvern, a suburb east of the Johannesburg CBD, a hijacked building caught fire, leaving three dead. As emergency services were putting out the fire, the residents took advantage and looted foreign-owned shops and burned car dealerships overnight on Jules Street.
The lootings extended to the CBD and other parts of Johannesburg.
To capture this embarrassing moment in South African history, I visited Katlehong, a township 35 kilometers east of Johannesburg, where the residents blocked roads leading to Sontonga Mall on a mission to loot the mall and the foreign-owned shops therein overnight.
Shop-owners and workers were shocked to wake up to no business.
Mfundo Maljingolo, a worker at Fish And Chips, was among the distressed.
“This thing started last night, people started looting and broke into the mall and did what they wanted to do. I couldn’t go to work today because there’s nothing to do; now, we are not going to get paid. The shop will be losing close to R10,000 ($677) today. It’s messed up,” said Maljingolo.
But South African businesses were affected too.
Among the shops at the mall is Webbers, a clothing and footwear store. Looters could not enter the shop and it was one of the few that escaped the vandalism.
Dineo Nyembe, the store’s manager, said she was in disbelief when she saw people could not enter the mall.
“We got here this morning and the ceiling was wrecked but there was no sign that the shop was entered, everything was just as we left it. Now, we are packing stock back to the warehouse, because we don’t know if they are coming back tonight,” lamented Nyembe, unsure if they would make their daily target or if they would be trading again.
Across the now-wrecked mall are small businesses that were not as fortunate as Webbers, and it was not only the shop-owners that were affected.
Emmanuel Nhlane’s home was robbed even as attackers were looting the shop outside.
“They broke into my house, I was threatened with a petrol bomb and I had to stand outside to give them a chance; they took my fridge, bed, cash and my VHS,” said Nhlane.
Nhlane had rented out his yard to foreign nationals to operate a shop. He does not comprehend why his belongings were taken because he doesn’t own a shop. Now, it means that the unemployed Nhlane will not be getting his monthly rental fee of R3,700 ($250).
Far away, the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, was also affected as trucks burned and a driver was killed because of his nationality. This was part of a logistics and transport industry national strike.
Back in Johannesburg, I visited the car dealerships that were a part of the burning spree on Jules Street.
The streets were still ashy and the air still smoky, two days after the unfortunate turn of events.
Muhamed Haffejee, one of the distraught businessmen there, said: “Currently, we are still not trading.”
Cape Town, in the Western Cape province of South Africa, which hosted the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa from September 4 to 6, was also witness to protests by women and girls from all walks of life outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre, demanding that the leadership take action to end the spate of gender-based violence (GBV) in the country.
There were protests also outside Parliament. What set off the nationwide outcry was the shocking rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old film and media student at the University of Cape Town, inside a post office by a 42-year-old employee at the post office.
There was anger against the ghastly crimes and wave of GBV in the country that continues unabated. According to Stats SA, there has been a drastic increase of women-based violence in South Africa; sexual offences are up by 4.6%, from 50,108 in 2018 to 52,420 in 2019.
A week later, on a Friday, Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile and one of the biggest economic hubs, was shut down by hundreds of angry women and members of advocacy groups from across Johannesburg. They congregated by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), the cynosure of business, singing and chanting, to demand “a 2% levy on profits of all listed entities to help fund the fight against GBV and femicide”.
Among the protesters was Cebi Ngqinanbi, holding a placard that read: “I’m not your punching bag.”
“We came here to disrupt Sandton as the heart of Johannesburg’s economic hub. We want to make everyone aware that women and children are being killed every day in South Africa and they [Sandton] continue with business as usual, sitting in their offices with air-conditioners and the stock exchange whilst people on the ground making them rich are dying. That is why we are here, to speak to those that have economic power,” said Ngqinanbi.
She added that if women can be given economic power, they will be able to fend for themselves and won’t fall prey to abusive men, since most women stay in abusive relationships because men are more financially stable.
Amid the chanting and singing of struggle songs, Nobuhle Ajiti addressed the crowd and shared her own haunting experience as a migrant in South Africa and survivor of GBV. She spoke in isiZulu, a South African language.
“I survived a gang rape; I was thrown out of a moving car and stabbed several times. I survived it, but am I going to survive xenophobia that is looming around in South Africa? Will I able to share my xenophobia story like I can share my GBV story?” questioned Ajiti.
She said as migrants, they did not wake up in the morning and decide to come to South Africa, but because of the hardships faced in their home countries, they were forced to come to what they perceived as the city of opportunities. And as a foreign national, she had to deal with both xenophobia and GBV.
“We experience institutionalized xenophobia in hospitals; we are forced to pay huge amounts for consultation. I am raped and I need medical attention and I am told I need to pay R5,000 ($250).
“As a mere migrant, where am I going to get R5,000? I get abused at home and the police officer would ask me where I’m from because of my accent, I sound Zimbabwean. What does my nationality have to do with my husband beating me at home or with the man that just raped me?” she asked.
Addressing the resolute women outside was the JSE CEO Nicky Newton-King who received the memorandum demanding business take their plight seriously, from a civil society group representing over 70 civil society organizations and individuals.
The list of demands include that at all JSE-listed companies contribute to a fund to resource the National Strategy Plan on GBV and femicide, to be launched in November; transport for employees who work night shifts or work after hours; establish workplace mechanisms to provide support to GBV survivors as part of employee wellness, and prevention programs that help make workplaces safe spaces for all women.
Newton-King assured the protestors she would address their demands in seven days. But a lot can happen in seven days. Will there be more crimes in the meantime? How many more will be raped and killed in South Africa by then?
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