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).