Running battles between locals, foreign nationals and the police in South Africa (SA) have made news headlines around the world. Last week the port city of Durban was shut down as police tried to contain widespread looting and violence against foreign nationals. Some of the scenes flashed across television screens were reminiscent of SA in the 80s. People, back then, took to the streets to protest against the apartheid government. This time around they took to the streets to loot and beat the people from the very nations across the continent that welcomed exiled South Africans who were trying to fight the apartheid regime from outside the country.
The Jesuit Institute South Africa and the Southern African Catholic Bishop’s Conference released statements last week condemning the violence. Many church and civil organisations, including Jesuit Refugee Service, are working around the clock to bring relief to victims who have had to feel their homes. The South African Football Association has also announced that two international soccer games will be played in neighbouring countries to raise awareness around xenophobia. On Tuesday night a silent vigil has been planned and will take place at the premises of South Africa’s Constitutional Court in Johannesburg. A number of politicians, civil activists, church leaders media personalities and celebrities are expected to attend.
Xenophobia (some politicians are now calling it “Afrophobia” as most of those who have been attacked are from other African countries) is always bubbling beneath the surface in SA. In 2008 large-scale xenophobic attacks left sixty-two people dead (twenty one of whom were SA citizens) and hundreds displaced. Nothing seems to have changed; seven people have lost their lives since the attacks began last week. The reasons for the attacks are rather complicated. Some people believe that they are symptomatic of a growing anger in SA because life, for many people, has not changed since independence in 1994. They believe that people, especially poor, young and disenfranchised black people, are becoming more and more frustrated that political promises which were made assuring a better life have not materialised. In fact unemployment rates have risen and the gap between the rich and poor has expanded. Locals claim that foreigners have spilled over SA’s porous borders and are stealing local jobs and women. Others blame foreign nationals for the high crime levels in the country. Government and civil society (including faith-based organisations) have done little to prevent further xenophobic attacks since the last widespread outbreak in 2008.
The latest attacks took place soon after a local traditional leader, the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, suggested that foreigners should pack their bags and leave. By no means the only or sole protagonist, many people in SA hold the view that his sentiments incited violence and contributed to the attacks in Durban. He made these after a labour dispute had taken place between locals and foreign nationals. After the violence broke out, he said nothing to quell it. At the inauguration speech of a new traditional leader on Saturday, he did not even mention the deadly attacks that gripped the country. On Monday he called an “imbizo” (meeting) in which he claimed that he had been misquoted and asked the Zulu people to take up arms for peace. He did not offer an apology to the victims or the country (even if he was misquoted) for the mayhem his words may have contributed to. Instead he blamed the media and a “third force”.
Late last week, and over the weekend, xenophobic attacks spread to other parts of the country. On the outskirts of Johannesburg police shut down a neighbourhood as police battled it out with locals who had set a building alight believed to be a residential block where foreign nationals were living. The main ring-road highway around Johannesburg, the M2, was also shut down as protestors lit tyres and threw stones at passing vehicles. Displaced people sought refuge in local police stations, community halls and churches. Attacks on foreigners and the looting of homes and businesses were also reported from two other provinces. The Malawian Government issued a statement in which it said that it would be assisting citizens to return home because of the situation in SA. Many foreigners want to flee SA, returning to their countries of origin which they ironically left looking for a better life in SA. Reports emerged of reprisal attacks on South Africans at the border of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
On Friday the country heard that SA president, Jacob Zuma, would be going to Asia on a state visit and to attend an economic summit. Violence escalated around the country overnight on Friday. On Saturday morning it was announced that Zuma would cancel his state visit to Indonesia so that he could visit victims of the violence who were being accommodated in a camp in an area outside of the City of Durban. He, instead, sent deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa. Zuma’s visit to the victims in the camp brought little consolation, he was met with some opposition and many people at the camp expressed their anger and frustration that his government had been slow to respond. He also visited a nearby township and appealed to locals to stop the violence.
South Africans woke up to a shocking story and pictures in The Sunday Times newspaper on Sunday morning – the same day government ministers were scheduled to meet to discuss the violence. It was the story (and graphic pictures) of a Mozambican man, Emmanuel Sithole, being beaten and stabbed to death in Alexandra Township just outside of the most affluent area of SA, Sandton. This story, and the graphic pictures, led many South Africans to take to social media condemning xenophobia and violence. The police identified Sithole’s killers from the pictures and arrested them; they are to appear in court on Tuesday. On Monday president Zuma chastised the media for publishing the graphic pictures – he said they bring the country into disrepute. So far more than three hundred people have been arrested in connection with the attacks on foreign nationals.
Late on Monday afternoon controversial leader of opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Julius Malema, visited Alexandra. Malema defended the Zulu King and blamed the current situation on the government. Malema’s visit to the township rocked by xenophobia and the shocking killing of a man became more like a campaign rally. He told the crowd “No Zimbabwean has taken your job. You want a job; go to Luthuli House (the headquarters of the ruling party, the African National Congress - ANC). Take every Zimbabwean back to Zimbabwe, and you will still be unemployed. You can kill all the people of Zimbabwe, and you will still die in poverty.” He then said, “Your problem is the ANC.”
Tourism authorities and business leaders are reporting losses in business due to the on-going attacks. On Tuesday morning the government announced that the army would be deployed to Alexandra Township (the place where Sithole was slain). Expedited courts have also been set up to deal with those arrested for xenophobic violence.