Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Johannesburg beset by a wave of xenophobic attacks

A wave of attacks on mostly Zimbabwean immigrants has left at least 22 dead in the last three days in Johannesburg, South Africa. Another 6,000 have fled to the safety of churches, police stations and community halls. Townships have become no-go areas as mobs go on a xenophobic rampage targeting foreigners without provocation. The refugees have become scapegoats for South Africa’s growing economic problems such as unemployment, crime and a lack of housing.

The scale of the violence has caught South Africa’s politicians and security forces off-guard. On the weekend, central Johannesburg resembled a war-zone, as armed police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse angry crowds. 200 people have been arrested and police reinforcements have been sent into the worst affected parts of the city calming the situation in the last 24 hours. One day earlier, a church where about one thousand Zimbabweans were taking refuge was attacked by a large mob. Bishop Paul Veryn of the Central Methodist Church told SABC radio: “We consider that the situation is getting so serious that the police can no longer control it.”

The violence began last week in the Johannesburg townships of Alexandra and Diepsloot due to perceptions that foreigners were behind robberies in the area. Local anger sparked vigilante justice and foreigners were assaulted and driven from their homes. The violence spread to other areas over the weekend. Men with guns and iron bars chanted “kick the foreigners out” and set upon immigrants from neighbouring African countries. In the last three days hundreds of people from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and elsewhere have been injured. Thousands more have been left homeless and many raped as the attacks on foreigners spread to the whole of the Johannesburg area. Gangs of youths, up to a hundred strong, attacked the homes of refugees over the weekend.

The cause is simmering resentment against successive waves of immigration. Since the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, millions of African immigrants have poured into South Africa seeking jobs and sanctuary. But recent high inflation has eroded the value of wages and social benefits and recent sharp increases in food and fuel prices has also adding to pressure on low-income families. Unemployment in South Africa currently stands at 40 per cent. Frans Cronje, deputy director of think-tank The South African Institute for Race Relations believes a number of factors have all come together to create the problem. He says the key issues are inflation, food and fuel prices “which put the squeeze on poor communities and then we were waiting for the spark.”

The attacks have been concentrated in Johannesburg's poorest areas and Zimbabweans have borne the brunt of the violence. Up to three million Zimbabweans are estimated to be in South Africa. Most of these have fled their homeland on South Africa's northern border due to the Robert Mugabe’s repressive policies and the current political crisis. Archbishop Desmond Tutu condemned the violence and urged South Africans to remember the help neighbouring countries offered during the apartheid era. "Although they were poor,” he said, “they welcomed us South Africans as refugees, and allowed our liberation movements to have bases in their territory even if it meant those countries were going to be attacked by the SADF (South African Defence Forces).”

One Ugandan victim of the violence in Johannesburg spoke of his experiences. “Hassan” said he saw a mob breaking into the next-door residence where many Somalis live. He heard an exchange of gunfire and later saw a crowd setting a man alight before police sprayed him with a fire extinguisher to put the fire out. He said gangs were stopping vehicles on the street and pulling foreign nationals out so they can beat them. Foreign-owned businesses have now closed. It's quiet now but very tense. He said he was staying with some South African friends who were protecting him. Hassan thought the violence was orchestrated from “quite high up” as a result of the rivalry between President Thabo Mbeki and his likely successor Jacob Zuma (though both men have publicly condemned the attacks).


Anonymous said...

Many of us watch in fear of family and friends in South Africa as news of Xenophobia in South Africa hits the international press.

As evidenced by the brain drain that has hit South Africa over the last few years, and the number of South Africans living in Europe it's a sad fact that many South Africans themselves felt threatened by a sort of "Xenophobia" when they lived in their own country and decided to leave.

Anonymous said...

It is true that there has been much violence in South Africa over the last couple of years, South Africans have even been found to have the same awareness levels as those of certain military groups.

The pressure on the people of the country has been increasing exponentially over the last few months, not only with oil prices but food, clothing, housing etc..

Here are a few things to consider, why has government not attempted to lessen the effects on the people.

Also a crime annalist, would be able to tell anyone who really wanted to know that more of the violent crimes in the country, for which convictions are given, are done by non S-A citizens.

The poorest community is only attacking what they see as the biggest threat to themselves, since police have very little power and immigration is not really making much difference.

Also pls note: the illegal immigrants who have run to police stations all over, will now be relocated!, not sent to their home country's...

It is the opinion of many South Africans that S-A government is working towards creating another Zimbabwe here.

And so here we are while the world watches, looks on in awe, but look towards your own governments as well for they themselves use lots of words and little action in this situation.

Anonymous said...

this is only the beginning south africa as a nation has shown that is has not developed in terms of the human index their people are still stuck in the mentality of being victims very soon it will not be foreigners but it will be Zulus vs Venda people. How can they expect to host the world cup if they are killing foreigners business from all over the world has to come and set up here but it will not be possible if they do not feel safe to do so