South Africa's aspirations to lead the continent are being shredded by the xenophobic mobs who have hacked, shot and beaten to death at least 42 African migrants in the land where apartheid was defeated.
The killing of Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Nigerians and other Africans by machete-wielding gangs of South Africans has been greeted with horror and outrage in states which once welcomed South African fugitives from racial persecution.From Maputo to Lusaka to Luanda and further north, African populations that gave refuge to the anti-apartheid African National Congress (ANC) are shocked to see their own people being slain and brutalised in ANC-ruled South Africa. "If South Africa could remember what we did for them during the apartheid regime, they shouldn't be doing that to us," said Emmanuel Efuk, a resident of Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos. The mobs accuse the immigrants of depriving South Africans of scarce jobs and fuelling crime.
Governments, civil society groups and commentators say the violence is soiling the image South Africa would like to project as a beacon of racial harmony and a continental peacemaker 14 years after apartheid ended. "This appalling hunting of foreigners which stains the emblematic land of South Africa must be lived as an unspeakable shame, a slap against the struggle of [anti-apartheid hero and former South African president Nelson] Mandela," the Senegalese private daily Sud Quotidien said in a commentary this week.
Many see South Africa under President Thabo Mbeki stumbling in its aspirations to represent Africa in world forums, such as the United Nations Security Council, where Pretoria is campaigning for a permanent seat against other contenders like Egypt and Nigeria.
Condemning the "blind violence" of the attacks, the Dakar-based Pan-African human rights organisation RADDHO said they dealt a heavy blow to Africa's leadership and image. "It is difficult to understand how the country which amply enjoyed the support of all African peoples in its fight against apartheid and which hosted the World Conference against Racism and Xenophobia in 2001 can be the place where such events are taking place," RADDHO said in a strongly-worded statement.
Echoes of apartheid
The group sharply criticised Mbeki's administration, already being accused of limp leadership in efforts to resolve the political crisis in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans fleeing turmoil at home have borne the brunt of the violence in South Africa. "The South African government ... has been slow to take rigorous and firm measures to prevent the massacre of African migrants," the Dakar-based rights group said.
Observers said the images of migrants being hunted down and killed -- some doused with petrol and set alight -- harked back to the violence of the apartheid years, when opponents of South Africa's white minority government were shot and tortured by police and informers were necklaced with burning tyres. Others recalled the times when "Frontline States" such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique, which sheltered the ANC in exile, became the targets of military raids by the white apartheid government. Hundreds of African civilians were killed.
Zimbabwe condemned the anti-migrant attacks in South Africa. "The government of Zimbabwe urges those responsible for the xenophobic violence to appreciate that we in the SADC [Southern African Development Community] region share a common history, a common culture and common destiny," the Foreign Ministry said. One senior Zimbabwean official blamed what he called the "white and Western-controlled" South African media, saying it had run a campaign blaming other Africans, especially Zimbabweans, for South Africa's social and economic problems.
Some analysts said the violence raised doubts about South Africa's suitability to host the 2010 Soccer World Cup."How can they host the world if they can't live side by side with people who are different from them?" said George Pambason, director of the Cape Town-based Alliance for Refugees. "This violence shows total ignorance and a society which is very eager to shed blood," he added. Meanwhile, the United Nations refugee agency on Friday expressed deep concern about the attacks.
The UN High Commission for Refugees said it remained "deeply concerned about the xenophobic attacks against foreigners in South Africa, including refugees and asylum seekers who fled to South Africa seeking protection from persecution in their own countries," the agency's spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told journalists
She added that reports from the agency's teams indicate that "a very large percentage" of those displaced by the violence are Zimbabweans. "They include people who came to South Africa to seek asylum. They urgently need both assistance and protection," she said. She added that Zimbabweans who are refugees "should be recognised as such".The violence, which was earlier concentrated in Johannesburg on Friday, also spread to Cape Town.
Malawi begins evacuation
The Malawian government announced on Friday it had begun helping to evacuate 850 of its citizens."More than 850 Malawians have been affected by the current violence. All Malawians willing to return home will be evacuated," Ben Mbewe, Foreign Affairs principal secretary said in a statement.
He confirmed that a Malawian citizen had been shot dead in Durban and said a task force had been set up to coordinate the evacuation. The first batch of people would be home this weekend. "The government will do everything possible to ease the plight of affected Malawians," he said. Mbewe said hundreds of Malawians had camped at police stations. About 850 Malawians and 3 000 other immigrants were sheltered at Klipton camp in Johannesburg, he said.
Embassy officials were visiting to check if they were any Malawians hospitalised and to offer help. Malawi's Foreign Minister Joyce Banda flew to South Africa on Sunday where she was briefed by the country's embassy officials on the situation.Hundreds of Malawians have flocked to South Africa in recent years seeking employment.
At least 23 Mozambicans killed
Mozambique's Deputy Interior Minister Jose Mandra said Friday at least 23 Mozambican nationals had been killed. To cope with the tide of returning migrants, the government of President Armando Guebuza has reactivated the National Operative Emergency Centre (CENOE), which deals primarily with disasters.
Foreign Affairs Minister Oldemiro Baloi said CENOE would deal with the situation in an integrated manner to avoid "opening wounds that are hard to heal later". The returnees are being assessed at the border. Some are directed to temporary accommodation centres for food and medical assistance while others are sent home.
Immigration authorities say that more than 10 000 Mozambicans have returned home from South Africa in recent days.The Mozambican government has laid on buses to fetch its citizens from makeshift camps for the displaced erected in police stations and civic centres around Johannesburg. - Reuters, AFP, Sapa-DPA
Xenophobia: An evil excuse for laziness
So many people have given so many reasons why xenophobia is rampant in South Africa, but none truly convinces. Sure, we are told that South Africans have been oppressed by their apartheid history, which the new South Africa government has failed to address. Yet South Africans are not the only people to have suffered oppression. Take the example of my country, Zimbabwe.
We were invaded in 1890 and we fought undeterred from that time on until we got our independence in 1980 -- almost a century of being treated like second-class human beings, and sometimes like animals. We understand the after-effects of such prolonged oppression and struggle on the psyche of a society. Attaining independence is a wonderful achievement after so many years of lost confidence, but being a child of the oppressed doesn't imply one can relax and expect things to come one's way on a silver platter.
Come back in time with me to Zimbabwe. Forget what is happening today and give credit to those comrades who fought with a vision for their country.
Soon after independence, the government ventured into many initiatives aimed at instilling a sense of self-development in its people. First it was the extension of the hand of reconciliation, which simply meant that we needed each other, black or white. While our black comrades were in the bush fighting the enemy, the enemy's sons and daughters were in good schools so that the black majority would still remain submissive to those who owned the means of production.
The government knew quite well that there wasn't enough qualified and skilled labour to play a competitive role in the new Zimbabwe. The hand of reconciliation was simply a play to buy time while we were putting our house in order. The government introduced a massive education initiative that included everyone above the age of six, up to the oldest person in the land. I remember very well my own grandmother bringing us lunch at school on her way to her adult education lessons. Learning took place across the country; under the trees, near rivers, at churches, on top of mountains.
While the majority was acquiring basic education in such harsh circumstances, the government was building colleges and universities. There was tertiary education for everyone in Zimbabwe during those days. I remember the vocational training centres to cater for those who had failed their general certificates. This was premised on the belief that we couldn't all become academics and there were many who had good skills.
All this explains the high literacy rate in the country -- it didn't just come naturally. It took years of investment and perseverance. It later became the foundation on which affirmative action, a cousin of black economic empowerment, was built. It wouldn't have worked without a skilled and qualified workforce.
My aim is not to show off what Zimbabwe achieved after independence, but to illustrate that it is one's choice to remain frustrated because one feels one has been oppressed for a long time or because the government doesn't deliver meals to one's doorstep.
The education system in Zimbabwe taught us many lessons. We learnt to work for ourselves and that the government was there to ensure the availability of infrastructure, policies and laws that promote self-development. We were taught never to look back but always to look forward. The government -- without any experience in running or managing a country -- still managed to get its people to understand that Zimbabwe is a developing-world country. It was able to impress upon people that their government could not afford to give them everything, hence the need for everyone to work hard and play their part in national development. We soon understood what it meant to be competitive in a peaceful environment.
We also learnt that one should not just work for the sake of it, but rather towards starting one's own business and employing others. For this reason, many Zimbabweans do not favour buying things on credit as they have the mindset to save money to start their own business.
I come from a rural area that used to harvest enough to feed the family and sell the rest. The money from the sales of crops would be used to buy agricultural input for the following year, as well as to send the children to good schools.
Our people never used to depend on loans, but they survived and lived modern lifestyles in rural areas. Some small-scale farmers even produced more than the commercial farmers who had everything at their disposal. We were never attracted to their farms because we didn't see the need; we were a hard-working society that had embraced the spirit defining our development through hard work.
I think there are many lessons to be learnt from this experience. There is nothing here about taking anyone's job. I visited Zimbabweans in Alexandra recently. They came here as refugees from the economic situation in their country. They worked hard for a few years and saved some rands. They opened corner shops where the neighbourhood bought household goods. These shops were not there before, and they identified an opportunity to serve the community.
It is horrifying that anyone in his right mind should think that a foreigner who has opened a shop is taking away someone's job when, in fact, he or she is employing local people.
We have had our own experiences with foreigners in Zimbabwe, but we never treated them the way they are being treated here. We hosted colleagues from South Africa during the apartheid era. They were never harassed to such a dehumanising extent, nor asked for papers. We even hosted some of the African National Congress leadership, and I am pretty sure other neighbouring countries such as Mozambique did the same until South Africa got its independence.
Please note: I am not saying it is payback time. I am simply asking: Why can't you be an understanding society as we were when you needed us? Let me not ask why white foreigners are safer in South Africa than their black counterparts.
I still remember vividly when the Mozambique National Resistance (MNR) invaded the western parts of Mozambique and eastern regions of Zimbabwe in the late 1980s. Millions of Mozambicans flocked into Zimbabwe. Men and women, young and old, professionals and the rest, all walked very long distances into the country. The MNR even invaded parts of Zimbabwe, killing thousands of people in the process. Yes, we lost our relatives and friends in the process. But I still remember that more than 1 000 people came to our village for safety. The village elders didn't chase them away. They were given a place to stay. They actually slept in the open, in the field, in the few houses -- particularly the women with children.
I was one of those displaced from my bedroom to accommodate women who had young children. I slept outside just like everyone else. I never complained that a foreigner took my bedroom. I didn't even complain that it was winter and it was very cold outside. We didn't complain that they were finishing our food because there was plenty in the field. We understood that it was a difficult situation for them and they needed someone to assist. Our elders understood there were laws of humanity to be followed. In South Africa, it seems that sometimes laws are nothing but political rhetoric.
Some foreigners decided to proceed, but others remained. Those who remained were absorbed into our families. Some of the Mozambicans looked for jobs while others became domestic workers or cattle herders. Those with families were given small pieces of land to grow their own crops.
Their children joined us at school. Despite their poor English -- they spoke Portuguese -- they were very good in mathematics. Together, as young children, we forged relationships; they taught us maths and we taught them English. Today, as I write this piece 22 years down the line, we have people in Mozambique whom we now call our relatives. They were never threatened, killed or asked for their identity documents. They were treated like human beings. Remember, this was just six years after we had attained our independence, while in South Africa 14 years have already passed.
If you ask my elders, they will tell you that there was a time when people from Malawi flocked into Zimbabwe. Even today they constitute a sizeable percentage of the population. They have an equal share of everything. They came and looked for jobs, and settled in Zimbabwe. Today they are Zimbabweans.
There was a time when there were more Malawians owning houses in Harare than locals, because our people believed they didn't need a house in town as they already had a home in the rural areas. By then the Malawians were buying houses; today, if you go to some of the townships, especially in Harare, there are more people of Malawian origin than locals.
Zimbabweans never complained. Instead they also started buying or building houses in Harare. We learnt our lessons, sometimes the hard way, and we took it as competition. Foreigners, because they had houses in urban areas, also had access to basic services such as good schools, clinics and so forth. They were part of us and we were together. These are the people who make Zimbabwe today.
There was a time when the government ventured into housing programmes. A noble idea it was, but the Zimbabweans that I know would rather join a stand-allocation waiting list than get a government house. They would prefer to build the house of their choice, to do it they own way -- unlike some people who still think a leader isn't a good leader because he didn't build a house for them; unlike some people in Mpumalanga who believe it is not a good idea to get a stand but rather a complete house from the government. They would rather let a Zimbabwean buy that stand and kill them later.
That's not the spirit of togetherness. The more you wait, the more the frustration. By the time you wake up, that foreigner will be a better person than you are. This world is not going to wait for waiters. Wake up and smell the coffee, South Africans!