Brutal Violence Against Foreigners in South Africa

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Written by Savo Heleta   
Wednesday, 28 May 2008


Poor townships and informal settlements around the South African city of Johannesburg exploded in xenophobic violence three weeks ago, with South African black people lynching, raping, burning, and killing legal and illegal immigrants from other African countries. 

Last week, the violence has spread to seven of country’s nine provinces. South Africans from smaller ethnic groups, such as Vendas and Shangaans, are also being attacked, as well as Pakistanis and other non-African immigrants.

The scenes of mobs of young and old holding machetes, knives, clubs, and wooden sticks and brutally attacking anyone who speaks or looks differently remind of the scenes from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the recent post-election violence in Kenya

"They came at night, trying to kill us, with people pointing out, 'this one is a foreigner and this one is not,'" said an immigrant from Mozambique. "It was a very cruel and ugly hatred." 

After beating, raping, and killing foreigners, angry mobs steal their belongings and set their shacks, homes, and shops on fire. In many cases, foreigners are burned alive, as the killers chant, dance, and laugh around the victims.

Over 50 people are reported dead, hundreds seriously injured, while over 50,000 had to take refuge in police stations, churches, and community centers. Tens of thousands of immigrants have already fled South Africa

The attacking mobs blame the foreigners for undercutting wages, taking away jobs, houses, and women, and contributing to the crime. 

Over the last decade, the number of legal and illegal immigrants in South Africa has increased dramatically. Since the end of apartheid, Africans from all over the continent have migrated to the country, attracted to its relative prosperity. It is believed that it’s easier to illegally cross the border into South Africa than any other African country.  

With a population of about 50 million, South Africa is home to an estimated five million immigrants. Up to three million Zimbabweans recently took refuge in South Africa to escape the economic meltdown in their country under Robert Mugabe’s disastrous rule. 

Many local analysts blame the government for allowing illegal immigration and not addressing the levels of poverty among its own people. Some say that the underlying cause of the xenophobic violence is the fact that the government has allowed millions of immigrants into the country "with no plan or policy in place to deal with them."  

Some analysts believe that the outburst of violence is connected to the rocketing food and fuel prices that are particularly felt among the poor.

About 50% of South Africans live on less than 3,000 rand ($400) a year, and between 25% and 40%, depending on definitions, have no job, even though the country is Africa’s economic powerhouse and contributes about 25% of its gross domestic product. 

The current xenophobic violence indicates rising anger among those who complain they have been left out by the government’s economic policies. According to the South African Institute of Race Relations, "poor and ineffective governance had created a tinder box of unmet expectations," which exploded in poor townships and informal settlements around the country. 

The South African Police officials have said that they do not have enough manpower to cover all areas affected by the violence. This is understandable, considering the fact that South Africa is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, where between 2001 and 2006 more than 100,000 people were murdered, nearly 270,000 raped, and 1.3 million seriously assaulted. Every day, around 50 murders, 150 rapes, and nearly 700 serious assaults are committed in the country. The numbers are probably even higher considering the fact that about 30% of all crimes are not reported.  

For the first two weeks of the monstrous attacks on the foreigners, the country’s top leadership watched in silence. Finally last week, the South African government decided to deploy the army into the troubled areas to quell the xenophobic violence. This marks the first time the army is deployed on the South African streets since apartheid.

Africans around the continent look in disbelief at this outbreak of vicious violence against fellow Africans in the “rainbow nation,” as South Africa is called. They "grieved the suffering of black people in South Africa [during apartheid]. It is thus being so myopic to suddenly turn against your yesterday sympathizers in such a violent way that leaves many dead and others undergo intense torture."

Some South African analysts ask "is it not ironic that the victims happen to be fellow Africans? This cruel reality blows out of the water any notions of pan-Africanism, never mind the African renaissance so often spoken of by [South African President] Mbeki and other politicians." 

The African Renaissance is a concept popularized by the current South African President, Thabo Mbeki, in which the African people and nations are called upon to solve the many problems troubling the African continent. The goals of the African renaissance are "social cohesion, democracy, economic rebuilding and growth, and the establishment of Africa as a significant player in geo-political affairs." 

The country that vowed to work on the African renaissance and solidarity is now a place where fellow Africans are raped, beaten, burned, and hacked to death. The question many people ask these days in South Africa is who will be the next victims of brutal mobs? 

Savo Heleta*
Port Elizabeth - South Africa

* The author a postgraduate student in Conflict Transformation and Management at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He is the author of Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia (AMACOM, March 2008).

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 29 May 2008 )
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In memoriam
In memoriam
After a long battle against the disease Franck Biancheri passed away 30th of October 2012, at the age of 51. A great European, a militant democrat, a wonderful person.
Franck Biancheri was founder of AEGEE and founding fathers of the ERASMUS programme. He also was research director of the European thinktank LEAP 2020. In 2005, following the no of the Dutch and French to the Constitutional Treaty, Franck Biancheri founded the European citizens movement Newropeans.