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Xenophobic Violence in South Africa: Rays of Hope in Terrible Times

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

Johannesburg, South Africa

When I arrived here on Monday after eighteen hours in transit, I was greeted by the horrific image on the front page of that morning’s Star, of a refugee hunted down by a mob and burned alive, in a grim imitation of the gruesome practice of “necklacing” not seen since some of the worst days of the anti-apartheid struggles. In the time it took me to fly from New York, it seemed, South Africa had erupted into xenophobic violence. As I write, more than twenty migrants and refugees have been killed, and at least 11,000 forced to flee their places of residence. It is, as Bishop Paul Verryn of Johannesburg’s Central Methodist Church told us, “a tragedy of gigantic proportions:” women, men and children forced to leave their country because they have been persecuted and brutalized, driven out in order to survive, find not refuge but another wave of trauma.

Where did it come from? It is estimated that at least 3,000 Zimbabweans come across the Beit Bridge border post each day in search of work, and last year 25,000 applied for political asylum. On this matter the South African constitution, as in so many ways, provides relatively progressive policy and legislation by world standards, but there have been manifest abuses on the ground by officials in refugee reception centres, at border posts and by police and the military. Illegal arrests and deportations are common. Refugee and migrant women are often refused medical care and access to antiretroviral drug treatment following rape, and to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Asylum seekers are not permitted to obtain driving licenses, despite their requirement by many employers. Even before the recent eruptions, the migrant community was the target of much xenophobia and some fatal physical attacks on Somalian shopkeepers and Zimbabwean refugees had taken place in several cities. Zulu migrant workers have also been caught up in some of the violence. Meanwhile the Department of Home Affairs, the chief agency dealing with refugees and migrants, is so racked by corruption that necessary sackings have depleted its ranks at a critical time, and South African police forces are already spread thin dealing with the country’s distressingly high crime rate.

Atlantic’s South Africa programme, which has made $5.5 million in grants in this area so far, has sought to protect the rights of refugees and migrants through monitoring of refugee reception centres, border posts and the Lindela Refugee Repatriation Centre to track abuses. We also support high impact strategic litigation and research, lobbying and advocacy for policy change. We back a project to transform the internal management of refugee reception centers to comply with human rights norms, and have a special focus on the needs of child refugees and Zimbabwean refugees – a problem that the government makes harder to deal with by its refusal to acknowledge and deal with the dimensions of the crisis in the country on its northern border with an inflation rate of 8,000 percent, an unemployment rate of 80 percent, and intensifying political violence and corruption. We also promote essential networking and collaboration among refugee-serving and advocacy organisations, a number of whom I met with in Johannesburg yesterday morning.

The conditions which caused Atlantic to make a priority of working on migration issues – as we also do in the U.S., Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – have now come together here in a toxic brew, and as the violence spreads by the hour, we wanted to learn more about why. The Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand, in its February report on Migrant Access to Housing in South African cities, reports that the National Housing Code “explicitly excludes migrants from government housing subsidies” and that “churches are one of the most significant institutions through which migrants gain access to temporary and longer-term housing.”

So my Atlantic colleagues and I visited Bishop Verryn yesterday in his office on the fifth floor of Central Methodist’s headquarters on Smal Street in downtown Johannesburg, not far from the courts. Since Zimbabweans started crossing the border into South Africa as their nation has been buffeted by Robert Mugabe’s brutal misrule – no official numbers exist, but it could be as many as three million, a number almost as high as South Africa’s white population – Bishop Verryn has opened the doors of Central Methodist as a sanctuary for refugees.

The church building was surrounded by police cars – a degree of protection from mob violence only recently added, as the church is an obvious target, and the Bishop has received death threats himself. We made our way through throngs of refugees – as many as two thousand are in or around the building – up five flights of often darkened stairs. With the huge demands on the building – which served in the 1990s as the site of the Johannesburg hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – plumbing and electricity are strained beyond capacity, and with that many people living so closely together, there have been two murders resulting from conflicts between those sheltered so far.

We crowded into the Bishop’s small office and sat around a stack of identification cards the church issues for the refugees so that authorities know they have a place to return to. Stacks of donated rice and maize sat nearby, and the Bishop apologetically interrupted our short meeting several times to deal with incoming press interviews – at the epicenter of the crisis, and one of the few visible authority figures standing up for migrants and refugees, he is much in demand.

Like many we have spoken with in the last few days, Bishop Verryn believes that while the violence has taken a xenophobic form, and undoubtedly contains an organised criminal element, coupled with probable complicity by police authorities in various parts of the country, it stems primarily from the country’s failure, in the fourteen years since apartheid ended, to address persistent poverty. “You can suppress it, as the authorities have to do,” he said, echoing the calls of others for a visible presence in violence-torn areas by the South African army, which President Thabo Mbeki is considering — but the underlying cause is the widening gap between rich and poor, and dealing with it will not be a walk in the park.”

The Bishop recounted that after hearing from the police about the danger that the Church itself would be attacked; some of the refugees began dismantling parts of the building to use metal and wood railings and bricks as weapons of self-defence.

“I said to them, if you win this with sticks today, it will be guns tomorrow. And if you get guns and you win it with guns, you will have to carry them the rest of your life,” Verryn told us. One by one, he said, those housed in the church surrendered their makeshift weapons. So far, though Central Methodist has lost many parishioners who find it hard to make this fundamentally Christian mission with their Bishop, hundreds of other South Africans have volunteered to join him in embracing the poorest among us.

Earlier in the day, we met at Atlantic’s Rosebank office with officials of organisations also working round the clock to deal with the crisis. They helped us understand the roots of the crisis better, including the roles played by local ward councilors and the tabloid media in stoking xenophobic tensions. They also underscored the complexity of the conflicts, as many targets of violence are not just more recent Zimbabwean refugees, but the owners of more established Somali and Pakistani businesses. The research they conduct helps debunk common myths about refugees, such as the belief that they contribute disproportionately to South Africa’s crime wave. As the Forced Migration Legal Advice and Musina Legal Advice Office, examining Zimbabwean cross-border migration, found in a report last September, “there is little evidence that Zimbabwean migration has led to an increase in crime in the border region.”

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu published an open letter on the front page of the Sunday Times last weekend asking “forgiveness” from Zimbabwean refugees “on behalf of our people,” recalling that many young South Africans exiled during the struggle against apartheid were welcomed into other countries of Africa.

“We human beings, ever since the Garden of Eden, are looking for scapegoats. We remain children of Adam and Eve,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner wrote. “Far too many are still living in shacks. Far too many are unemployed,” not “able to share in the peace dividend” that was meant to follow from the end of white minority rule. Indeed, it is hard to come away from a visit to South Africa, which not long ago made the journey from human rights pariah to human rights beacon for the world, without being unsettled by the widespread view, across racial lines, that the democracy is imperiled from a failure to deal openly and honestly with issues of poverty, race and AIDS, and from a bizarrely protective stance toward the Mugabe regime that has made both Zimbabwe and South Africa worse off.

The current crisis may escalate, may be halted by a show of state force coupled with the arrests of perpetrators, or it may spiral down for a while. Meanwhile, stronger condemnation needs to be heard from senior government and ANC officials, along with rapid deployment of refugee assistance funds too often stalled in bureaucracy. Those who want to provide direct assistance to refugees can support Central Methodist itself by visiting or relief organisations listed at the end of this column.

Many Zimbabwean refugees were professionals back home, and before the recent crisis, those who stayed at Central Methodist were required to contribute to the maintenance and cleaning of the church, and to study or teach others. More than a dozen have taken ballroom dancing lessons in a small second-floor corridor, but they had to be suspended, according to instructor Beauty Mosutlhe, because conditions are so crowded. The church also runs book, chess and drama clubs, and offers art and music lessons – what Bishop Verryn calls “true art,” created in the most dire of human conditions. As a flashlight led us down the dark stairs from the Bishop’s office into the Johannesburg night, we heard a choir from somewhere in the building, a ray of hope in a terrible time.

Gara LaMarche

Links to web sites mentioned in this column:

Relief organisations: