After xenophobic attacks, S. African government blasted for tardy response

Immigrants say persecution is part of daily life — and they are forming their own groups to monitor violence

An anti-xenophobia activist stands chained in front of a banner, as thousands of people get ready to march against the recent wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa on April 23, 2015.
Gianluigi Guercia / AFP / Getty Images

JOHANNESBURG — Reymond Mapakata was on his bicycle earlier this week, pedaling his way toward this city’s central business district. A few days before he’d received a phone call about a Zimbabwean furniture maker who’d been attacked by a South African mob, and Mapakata was on his way to investigate.

It was not a straightforward mission. First there was a detour via Park Station, where police were rounding up a group of foreign traders and demanding their papers. “You see? They just ask for money,” said Mapakata, shaking his head. “They’ve been doing it long time.”

Next he went to check on a friend, a Zimbabwean tailor taking refuge at the Central Methodist Church, stopping first to exchange fist bumps with a few Rastafarian barbers. Along the way he was asking questions: Any news? Any incidents to report? On the sidewalk he paused to bear-hug a burly Nigerian man.

“No xenophobia?” asked Mapakata.

“Everything is fine,” said the man, with a weary smile.

Mapakata is a volunteer for Peace Action, a nongovernmental organization that since 2010 has worked to monitor, document and report incidents of violence against foreign nationals in South Africa. The group is part of a grass-roots network that has emerged in response to xenophobic attacks across the country — a recent wave of which left seven people dead — and the government’s failure to address their underlying causes. For many immigrants in South Africa, xenophobia is not simply an issue that flares up during periodic outbreaks of violence, but is a fact of daily life, part of a pattern of threats, harassment and government negligence.

“Xenophobia is entrenched in the institutions of South Africa,” said Marc Gbaffou, chairman of the African Diaspora Forum, an organization that works with some 30 immigrant and South African communities around the country.

Along with responding to specific xenophobic attacks, Mapakata’s group deploys monitors to places where its workers say foreigners are most vulnerable. This includes government offices, such as the Department of Home Affairs and the country’s refugee centers, where poor migrants are often denied services and bullied for bribes; hospitals, which, according to activists, recently began illegally demanding cash payments in advance from foreign patients; and the streets of inner-city Johannesburg, where foreign shopkeepers and street traders are often harassed by the police.

The group’s work, according to its founder, the Rev. Paul Verryn, was born out of the belief that consistent engagement with local communities and law enforcement is the only way to break a cycle of violence against foreigners that experts say began to gain momentum in the early 2000s. “It’s very clear that when communities have some kind of monitoring or awareness-raising [in place] … even though there are threats, they don’t materialize,” said Verryn. 

Without the current existence of a longstanding political discourse which demonizes outsiders, it is unlikely that the violence would take the form it does or blaze so bright.

Loren B. Landau

University of the Witwatersrand

The recent unrest was triggered by comments made by Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini, who reportedly urged all foreigners last month to return to their countries. After two weeks of unrest in the traditional Zulu homeland of KwaZulu-Natal, the violence spread last week to Johannesburg. In 2008, a similar outbreak there left more than 60 dead and displaced thousands.

For many of the migrants who come to the “rainbow nation” with dreams of a better life, their first stop is this rough-and-tumble city. Mapakata, who was born in Zimbabwe, came to Johannesburg in 2008 to “search for green pastures,” he said, only to find that “the situation you ran from is better than the situation you find here.” Like many migrants, he soon found himself living on the streets, preyed on by criminals and harassed by the police. After being stopped by cops one day in 2008, his passport was confiscated and he was sent to prison. While thousands of other migrants in South Africa were being displaced by xenophobic violence that year, Mapakata spent five months behind bars.

A family of foreign nationals from Zimbabwe look on in disbelief after surviving a petrol bomb attack at their home in Illovo, some 55 kilometres south of Durban, on April 19, 2015.
Rajesh Jantilal / AFP / Getty Images

When he was released he made his way to the Central Methodist Church. There he met Verryn, who in 2000 began opening the church’s doors to undocumented migrants from troubled countries such as Rwanda, Burundi and Zimbabwe. It was through the church that Mapakata became engaged with community outreach, recognizing that his plight was echoed in the challenges facing an estimated 2 million to 5 million foreigners in South Africa. “We are all victims here,” he said earlier this week. Today Mapakata does his part by pounding the pavement, speaking to South African auto mechanics, Somali shopkeepers, Congolese pastors, Zimbabwean carpenters and countless others spread across this metropolis of 4.4 million.

Though order was restored to much of South Africa this week, critics have blasted the government for a response that Verryn called “tardy and ambivalent.” In remarks to the nation on April 16, President Jacob Zuma condemned the attacks, while still noting that the government was “sympathetic to some of the issues” that sparked them. He cited complaints that illegal immigrants contribute to South Africa’s soaring crime figures and take jobs in a country whose official unemployment rate is 25 percent

Such statements “sum up the government’s inconsistencies” by implicitly acknowledging the legitimacy of South Africans’ grievances against foreigners, said Trish Erasmus, director of the refugee-and-migrants program at the nonprofit Lawyers for Human Rights, or LHR. “It would be more helpful if he would unequivocally say … that attitudes which sponsor anything other than integration will not be tolerated.”

For Loren B. Landau, director of the African Center for Migration and Society at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, the president’s comments were in line with “the consistent demonization of poor migrants by officials and leaders.” This includes Zwelithini — who receives a government salary — and the president’s son, Edward, who said that South Africa is a “ticking time bomb” because of the presence of foreign nationals. “Without the current existence of a longstanding political discourse which demonizes outsiders, it is unlikely that the violence would take the form it does or blaze so bright,” said Landau.

For many, the rage that erupted during the recent spate of violence was a harsh reminder of the failures of the ruling African National Congress, ANC, to deliver on the promise of a “better life for all” made by Nelson Mandela when he became the country’s first black president in 1994. More than 20 years later, South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies on the planet. Restlessness continues to grow over the government’s failures to tackle problems, including unemployment, affordable housing and the delivery of basic services like water and electricity. While the country’s Black Economic Empowerment policy has been a focal point of the ANC’s efforts to address that imbalance, it’s largely seen as benefiting only a small, wealthy elite. Meanwhile, the growing gap between rich and poor has left most black South Africans — roughly 80 percent of this country of 54 million — without a safety net.

“As communities, they feel that they don’t have protection,” said Nomzamo Zondo, director of litigation at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, which works with disadvantaged communities across the country. “They feel that even though they have constitutional rights they can’t really enforce them.”

You have migrants who are lecturing in universities. You have migrant doctors who are saving lives of South Africans on a daily basis. But all these stories are not told to the basic South Africans.

Mark Gbaffou

African Diaspora Forum

While discontent within the rank and file of the ruling party has grown in recent years, allegiance to the ANC runs deep for the many South Africans with memories of the liberation struggle, as well as for a youth population that has effectively grown up under one-party rule. In the poor, crowded townships, where most of the xenophobic violence takes place, competition for scarce resources is fierce, and it is generally harder to hold elected officials accountable than to place the blame on foreigners. “Xenophobia starts in people’s minds,” said Erasmus, “and it grows with a lack of education and a lack of understanding.”

Experts say that the government needs to do more to address those misconceptions by creating a long-term policy of education and integration. On the ground, civil-society groups perform vital outreach to welcome new arrivals — many of whom are fleeing war and political violence — while fostering greater dialogue between immigrant and South African communities to change the negative perceptions of foreigners. “You have migrants who are lecturing in universities. You have migrant doctors who are saving lives of South Africans on a daily basis,” said Gbaffou, of the African Diaspora Forum. “But all these stories are not told to the basic South Africans.” Through community workshops, Gbaffou said, his group has had great success, even in the poor, troubled townships that are most threatened. “[In] communities where we are working, people have really been welcoming the initiatives,” he said. The greatest challenge, he added, was the lack of resources to do more.

Many activists say progress, however incremental, is being made. The police were widely praised for their vigorous response to the violence, while Erasmus noted that there’s been “much more of a commitment to prosecute” perpetrators after widespread disappointment over the lack of prosecutions in the wake of the 2008 attacks. “There needs to be a deterrent factor,” she said. “If people are not prosecuted, then this will happen again.” On Tuesday Johannesburg launched a hotline for victims to report xenophobic attacks — a move that was lauded by activists, who noted that many members of vulnerable communities are afraid to report problems to the police. Civic groups, meanwhile, continue to put pressure on the government to address what the LHR calls “systemic and glaring deficiencies in the asylum system.” 

Perhaps most importantly, activists, community leaders and everyday citizens have come together in a resounding show of solidarity against the violence, taking heed of Verryn’s comments that “all citizens of this country have a responsibility to be on red alert.” At a recent community gathering in Orange Farm, a poor township that was unaffected by the latest violence, one bishop told Verryn that leaders of both South African and immigrant communities joined to say, “we will not tolerate xenophobia in any way.”

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” said Verryn.

Still, after years of simmering tensions, change will not come overnight. Late in the afternoon on Wednesday, Mapakata arrived at an abandoned building that housed up to 600 squatters, mostly from Zimbabwe. It was from here that he’d received reports of the furniture maker who’d been attacked. Neighbors, though, said the man hadn’t been heard from in almost a week. The rooms were dark, lit only by the embers of burning cigarettes. A somber man in cargo pants came forward, punched a number into his bulky mobile phone and frowned when the call dropped. Mapakata thanked him and shook his hand. Scrawled onto the wall in black marker were the words “Food. One love. Freedom. Peace.”

Standing outside, Mapakata squinted into the late-day sunlight. He was preparing to bike back to Kensington, a suburb where he rented a room and picked up occasional work as a cameraman. Sighing, he vowed to take up the case again later in the week. “When you’re migrating, step by step,” he said, “you don’t just reach your destination at the same time.”

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