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SA on alert for xenophobic violence

Resource type: News

Mail & Guardian Online |

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PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA — Some of the shack dwellers of Jeffsville recently had an idea: Why not stage a march to demand government housing some had been awaiting for 18 years?

Community leader Ernest Tshavhuyo, though, feared an angry march could mean trouble in the Pretoria-area squatter camp.

Protests scattered across South Africa in 2008 began as demonstrations against lack of change for the poorest of the poor, but soon foreigners were being attacked in shack settlements and other desperate communities, leaving 70 people dead by the time the violence ended several weeks later.

At least two people in Jeffsville were killed.

Now, as a new round of protests have sprung, South Africans are worried about how to avoid a repeat of the horrific violence.

They might learn from people like Tshavhuyo.

The 43-year-old former factory worker persuaded his neighbours to stay home and give him three weeks to set up a meeting with Pretoria, at which he and a small group from Jeffsville would present their concerns peacefully.

“We said, `What is the purpose of marching?”‘ Tshavhuyo said in an interview on Friday, describing the community meeting the day before.

“Our community needs education. Some, they don’t even know the meaning of democracy.”

The most recent unrest has included protests that deteriorated into rioting in eastern South Africa, with foreigners’ businesses looted and police firing rubber bullets. In another protest in Durban, protesters complaining of high food prices invaded supermarkets and ate food from the shelves.

The incidents have the ANC-led government under pressure. In an editorial this week, the the Timescalled new protests “disturbing warnings that a full-scale outbreak of xenophobic violence is not far away”.

The ANC is desperate to avoid the kind of violence that hit last year, when images broadcast around the world — including some from Jeffsville of residents burning shacks where Zimbabweans, Malawians, Somalis and other foreigners had lived and worked — exposed deep anti-foreigner sentiment in South Africa.

Zuma’s party released a statement on Thursday promising “to listen and find solutions to people’s concerns” and condemning looting and attacks on foreigners “under the guise of `service delivery protests”‘ against the government.

If Jeffsville is any model, such pronouncements and promises won’t be enough. In this squatter camp, it took commitment from people like Tshavhuyo to bring calm last year, and he and his colleagues say they have to be constantly on alert.

Tshavhuyo said soon after last year’s violence erupted, he sat with like-minded neighbours in the bare shed that is the headquarters of the camp’s community organisation. They wrote a letter to a city official asking for help. Within days, a meeting had been arranged at which the attacks on foreigners were denounced and, Tshavhuyo said, those who had led the violence backed down after seeing the community was against them.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation, Mandela’s headquarters since he retired from politics in 1999, had been looking for ways to address the anti-foreigner violence. Impressed with Jeffsville’s efforts, the foundation helped organise another community meeting in June, at which Tshavhuyo, who has been unemployed for six years, rose to offer an apology to foreigners on behalf of the settlement’s South Africans.

“We are responsible as citizens to make sure we behave in a way that promotes peace,” said Mothomang Diaho of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. “There needs to be a lot of self-reflection.”

South Africans know wariness of foreigners is common around the world, but worry their xenophobia is particularly virulent, perhaps a result of the isolation created by apartheid, or because the institutionalised racism of the past has left even black South Africans suspicious of black foreigners.

“The healing, it needs to take place among ourselves,” said Tshavhuyo, who apologised in public again on Mandela’s birthday July 18, when a reconciliation ceremony was held under a tent on a sports ground on the edge of Jeffsville.

Abdul Hassam, a native of Somalia who owns several small shops in Jeffsville, slaughtered a cow for the ceremony, to show he had accepted Tshavhuyo’s apology.

Friday, Tshavhuyo and Hassam greeted each other with a warm, complicated handshake. Hassam, heads of the Somali Association of
South Africa, said some of his countrymen left the country following last year’s violence. He considered leaving as well, but instead has rebuilt his Jeffsville businesses and devoted himself to reconciliation.

“We are very grateful to the community of Jeffsville — they have stood by us,” said Hassam, (42) who fled his war-ravaged homeland 11 years ago. “We are trying our best to see to it there are no more attacks on foreigners.” – Sapa-AP

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