Spooky silence as foreigners abandon Joburg streets

The past two weeks' xenophobic violence has been a revelation.

There have been complaints before about foreigners and their nefarious ways, but no one was expecting the violent riots that erupted.

It was so shocking that peoples' reaction to the chaos was facile. They felt helpless because Africans were being killed and they feared for their relatives and neighbours.

Those who first laughed at the mayhem quickly changed their tune when people began to die. Stories about criminal foreigners and Nigerians who steal local women were dropped in favour of sound bytes about what good neighbours the foreigners were.

Commuters vowed to take the law into their hands if their foreign neighbours were attacked or injured.

One working mother moaned about not being able to buy vegetables cheaply because the street hawkers had disappeared. She blamed the rioters and said most of them would not take on such a menial job.

Others were angry because we had to wait a long time while the taxi was "binding". There are ranks, such as those in Germiston, where one hardly has to wait for a taxi to fill up.

Last week we had to wait five to 10 minutes before we could leave.

The ranks were quiet since the foreigners and local vendors kept their stalls closed for fear of looters. It took me a week to buy a nail-cutter because they were absent.

I had forgotten that the street goods were also available in shops. Like most Gauteng residents, I am used to goods being brought right to my purse.

Johannesburg was a ghost town. The blaring promotional music stands were silent. The TVs showing African movies, in which the women wail and scream, were switched off.

It was as if someone had forgotten to add garlic and curry to a stew. The town was not the same, no bustle, no loud shouts, no irritating poster boys and no colour.

I was uneasy in town for the first time in years. I am not used to the empty streets, which looked spooky. I kept looking over my shoulder fearing that I would be mugged.

I mentioned this to a taxi driver who had only two passengers.

He said taxi drivers were facing two problems. There were fewer passengers, and the quick-fix mechanics had not opened their "garages".

These garages and the mechanics were cheap, reliable and could have a taxi back on the road within an hour. He said locals would tell you to fetch your taxi or car in four or five days.

He said South Africans complained a lot but were not up to the standards of foreigners in skill and business savvy.