Skip to main content

Seething beneath the surface

Resource type: News

Mail & Guardian Online | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

University of the Witwatersrand is an Atlantic grantee.

By Monako Dibetle and Mandy Rossouw.

It has been 18 months since the violent xenophobic attacks broke out across the country. Monako Dibetle and Mandy Rossouw talked to foreigners from across Southern Africa, locals and experts and found Gauteng on the boil

‘Xenophobic violence could happen today, tomorrow or next week, who knows,” shouts Moriti Phasha inside his humid corrugated iron office in Brazzaville, a craggy informal settlement on the outskirts of Atteridgeville, west of Pretoria, and the site of the first outbreak of xenophobic violence early last year.

Phasha is a self-appointed community leader who handles more than 100 service delivery queries by Brazzaville residents each day.

It’s been 18 months since last year’s violent attacks and Phasha says the community remains remorseless.

“Who can blame the community for behaving like this?” he asks. “The people of Brazzaville have lived here for 12 years without electricity, water and employment and are very frustrated. It is unfair to expect them to be pleased to share the little space they have with Zimbabweans and Malawians and Mozambicans and Somalis under these circumstances.”

Phasha says the attacks were intended to draw government’s attention ahead of the 2009 general elections.

“The government’s response to the attacks made us look like fools. Instead of addressing our concerns, they rushed to set up camps for foreigners using our tax money. They treated them like royalty and had the police guarding the camps day and night. But nobody ever says anything about our problems and the promises government always makes. We have become victims of the vote.”

Despite wide public condemnation of last year’s violence, which claimed more than 60 lives and left about 20 000 foreigners displaced, sporadic attacks have continued, say experts. And as frustrated communities countrywide take to the streets in protest against lacklustre service delivery and corrupt local government officials, fears abound of yet another spate of violence.

Dr Loren Landau, head of the forced migration studies programme at the University of the Witwatersrand, says that although last year’s attacks were a result of a combination of broken election promises, skyrocketing food prices and electricity outages, they cannot be seen as something of the past.

“When government does not deliver and people begin to feel left out, they are vulnerable to be mobilised for attacks of this nature,” he says, adding that the 2011 local government elections will be a platform community leaders will use to mobilise against one another in the jostling for positions.

What worries Landau most is that government hasn’t done much to change the situation. “An initial commission of inquiry has gone nowhere,” he says, “and it is clear from the draft national plan of action that they still need to understand the real issues.”

He says government’s approach of attributing the attacks to poor people’s increasing impatience with the lack of service delivery further entrenched the idea that foreigners — more than 75% of migrants are from the Southern African Development Community — are a threat to people’s livelihoods because they are taken care of with resources meant for South Africans.

The decision to give Zimbabweans 90 days visa-free entry to South Africa exacerbated the perception that foreigners are being treated better by the government than citizens.

But Gauteng government spokesperson Thabo Masebe maintains that the victims of the xenophobic violence integrated themselves back into society without any real help from government.

“Our job was to create an environment of safety and communities had to accept that they can live with foreign nationals. None of these communities where the attacks [occurred] had any problems again.”

Masebe says this is thanks to government’s public education strategies and campaigns by community leaders to convince communities to accept foreigners. “And the message has sunk in,” he says.

Landau disagrees, saying attacks have continued but on a much smaller scale. “There have been continuing attacks — not necklacing, but they have been there.”

A recent study by the forced migration programme found that no reintegration had actually taken place. He says victims did not return to their original homes but instead relocated to the inner city, where accommodation is more expensive but deemed safer.

Landau says government has not paid enough attention to the small civic groups that were originally set up in the 1980s and 1990s and which were responsible for organising the attacks. “These groups are community policing forums or street committees that are socially legitimate and which, in the name of security and protecting the community’s values, encourage violence against foreigners.”

According to recent reports, 137 people have been convicted in connection with the xenophobic attacks, and 182 cases have been withdrawn because of witnesses or complainants having left the country. In May this year 51 cases were ready for trial and 82 had been referred for further investigation.

The national prosecuting authority’s Bulelwa Makeke says there have been convictions for these cases under various charges, such as assault and grievous bodily harm, intimidation, murder and malicious damage to property.

“I am, however, not in a position to provide you [with] any statistics and precise numbers, as our information is captured according to conviction rates [for] general crime types,” says Makeke, indicating that the xenophobic attacks have not been classified or tracked independently of general crime.

But a brisk walk along Brazzaville’s muddy avenues, which draws curious stares from the locals, shows not much has changed and highlights the obvious divisions between South Africans and foreigners.

Unemployed resident Norah Matloa says foreigners in Brazzaville have become stubborn and are quick “to cry xenophobia”. She says they are involved in all sorts of criminal activities, but when confronted or reported to the police they claim that they are being victimised because they are foreigners.

“These people are untouchables now and we are nothing in our country,” says Matloa. “Most of us are not happy with this situation and I wouldn’t be surprised if another attack happens.”

Meanwhile, outside the home affairs’ refugee reception centre in the Crown Mines industrial area, refugees, mostly Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and Somalis, crowd the busy road. Colourfully dressed female traders selling cold drinks, cigarettes and biscuits have taken pavement space to set up stalls. The area looks like a mini-market and taxis come and go — loading and off-loading refugees opposite the centre’s heavily guarded entrance.

Joyce Sibanda, a Zimbabwean refugee, is one of the traders. She arrives at the centre at 5am daily to do business.

“It is an everyday struggle but it is better than being in Zimbabwe doing nothing,” she says. Sibanda’s wish is “to get a green book” so that she can conduct her business freely. “For me getting the green book is the ultimate goal. Zimbabwe won’t be fixed overnight. It will take a long time and maybe all of us will be dead then,” she says, chuckling, fingering the variety of sweets and bubblegum on her stall.

Since the opening of the refugee centre four years ago, tussles about trading space between refugee traders and factory owners have become a common occurrence. Factory owners recently complained to the Department of Home Affairs about the booming informal activities next to the factories and the increase in theft that has come with it.

But Sibanda is not troubled. “We don’t care what happens between the department and the owners of these factories. All we want is a better life and better treatment from South Africans,” she says. “They can chase us all they can but we are not going anywhere. I’d rather be killed here [in South Africa] than die of hunger in Zimbabwe.”

Related Resources


Human Rights & Reconciliation

Global Impact:

South Africa


University of the Witwatersrand