CONCERN that service delivery protests will degenerate into xenophobic violence was fuelled by reports from Balfour, Mpumalanga.
But there is a history of opposition to xenophobia in Balfour's township, Siyathemba. An analysis of the protest must take a different form.
This was said by Mohammed Waqas, spokesman for 30 foreign nationals, mostly Ethiopians, gathered outside Balfour police station.
"The people are right", he said. "I've lived in Balfour for five years. I didn't see the government build any road, any new houses. They didn't do anything for the people."
Lefu Nhlapho and Andile Matiwane, leaders of the present movement, recalled their intervention in a community meeting in May 2008. Local business leaders wanted foreign traders kicked out of the township but the duo countered arguments around crime and competition and blocked potentially dangerous xenophobia.
After the May 2008 xenophobia violence the Siyathemba community organised a sports day that brought locals and foreign nationals together. Locals with a little money provided a braai. Such was opposition to xenophobic violence that refugees from other townships fled to Balfour.
The recent violence flared UP after a community meeting on July 19. As people left the meeting, police fired rubber bullets, teargas and, according to some residents, live ammunition. There was another attack the following morning.
Simple barricades of large stones and burning tyres were erected in an attempt to block armoured Nyalas from moving around the township.
Protesters set fire to two buildings: a small municipal office and a partially ruined school store. On the Monday, in the course of the rioting, foreign-owned shops were looted.
Looting is a common practice in rioting everywhere. Indeed, we were shown South African-owned shops that had suffered this fate during the anti-apartheid struggle.
Unlike May 2008 the attacks were on the property of foreign nationals, not their bodies, and there is no evidence that looters were demanding "they must go".
Why were South African-owned shops spared? One possibility is that their owners remained in the township, unlike foreign traders. Significantly, Zimbabweans, Malawians and other non-South Africans living in the location were not attacked.
If there was anti-foreigner sentiment it was limited and condemned by all. A protest leader told us that people wanted foreign traders to return "because they are cheap and we befriended them".
Waqas confirmed that there were "very good relations" with township residents. He said they greeted South African shopkeepers rather than talking or visiting each other.
While xenophobia has been exaggerated, almost no attention has been paid to the police brutality that occurred. We saw two examples, but were told there were others.
One was a fifteen-year-old boy who had allegedly been shot with rubber bullets. Another was a young mother. Dragged from her hiding place under a bed, she had her stomach ripped apart by a rubber bullet.
Siyathemba is a desperately poor township where many residents lack electricity, water and sewerage.
The community submitted a memorandum to the Dipaleseng Municipality on July 8 2009. Most demands concerned basic issues such as a request for a police station, a mini-hospital and high-mass lights.
Topping the list were calls for a skills training centre and policies governing job recruitment in the area.
These reflect the fact that while the protest was backed by the community, leadership was provided by the township's youth. It is this generation that suffers most from unemployment and lack of housing. Moreover, many of the older leaders are now politicians and tender-seekers.
The council failed to respond to the July 8 memorandum, hence the July 19 meeting voted for a stayaway. Some activists suspect that police violence was aimed at intimidating them. It had the reverse effect. People fought back and the stay-away lasted four days.
On Saturday we attended a meeting called by the Dipaleseng Youth Forum, made up of young men and women with matric certificates but no jobs. Forum spokesperson Sakhela Maya is a Wits graduate.
The meeting was militant, democratic and passed a motion of no confidence in the mayor and councillors. They were given a week to respond.
On Monday a meeting called by deputy ministers and local stakeholders asked for a reconsideration of this deadline. It remains to be seen whether this will happen.
It is clear that the failure of the authorities to deliver very basic services has given rise to the new movement. Waqas linked this to the election. Promises were made, he said, but nothing happened.
From Balfour, we should not fear xenophobia. What we face is a new generation fighting for basic rights that democracy has failed to deliver.
l Alexander is director of the Centre for Sociological Research at the University of Johannesburg. Pfaffe is a researcher at the same centre.