• World

Anti-Immigrant Terror in South Africa

5 minute read
Megan Lindow/Alexandria with Alex Perry/Cape Town

Ten days of mob attacks on immigrants in townships around Johannesburg showed no signs of abating Tuesday, as the death toll reached 23 and South Africa’s government faced growing calls to deploy its army. The attacks have mostly targeted impoverished migrants from neighboring African countries living (some legally, some illegally) in shantytowns around the business capital of Africa’s wealthiest country. Every night since Saturday May 11, crowds of South African men, some brandishing guns, have rampaged through areas dominated by refugees, warning the foreigners to leave the country, burning huts, raping women, and beating and killing men. The victims say their attackers accuse them of taking jobs away from South Africans, in a country where the national unemployment rate is estimated at around 40%, and is much higher in many townships.

South Africans have been shocked by the depth of the hatred revealed by the violence against immigrants, which has been sharply condemned by the country’s political leadership. On Monday, several South African newspapers printed a gruesome photograph of a Malawian man in flames, having been doused in gasoline and set alight by a mob who laughed as he burned. (The victim died in the hospital.) On Tuesday, some of the several thousand refugees sheltering at Jeppestown police station in central Johannesburg told TIME that, earlier in the day, the police compound had been attacked by a mob that had tried to scale the walls before being beaten back by police firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

Another 800 migrants are sheltering at the police station in Alexandra, the crime-ridden township where the current wave of violence began. There, Zimbabwean Lindi Moyo, 26, who left her country for South Africa “because there is no work, and no food,” told TIME she had seen two of her neighbors killed in an area called Schweta. She described how a mob had assembled outside her hut, “hitting people in the street, throwing stones and shouting, ‘You are foreigners. We are going to kill you.'” They stormed her small, two-room shack, she said, stole everything, then burned it. Moyo slept for a night in some woods along with 100 other Zimbabweans and Malawians, before finding her way to the police station in the morning. Josephine Sibanda, another Zimbabwean, said the crowds had shouted that foreigners were taking their jobs. Said the mother of seven: “South Africans have time to fight, but Zimbabweans only have time to work, because we are working to feed our children.” However, she has only managed to find occasional work as a cleaner, she added.

As ethnic Indian traders in the city center boarded up their businesses for fear of looting, South African President Thabi Mbeki called for an end to the attacks. “Citizens from other countries on the African continent and beyond are as human as we are and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity,” said Mbeki, whose African National Congress (ANC) had based itself in neighboring states during its war against the apartheid regime. South Africa was not “an island separate from the rest of the continent.”

Human rights groups and the National Union of Mineworkers urged Mbeki to consider using the military to restore order. “The state should deploy the army to curb the terrible situation in which poor immigrants and local residents to some extent find themselves,” NUM deputy general secretary Oupa Komane told Agence France-Presse. ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe told reporters last Monday that the possibility of deploying soldiers had been discussed by the cabinet, and that such a measure could “not be ruled out.”

South Africa has some of the world’s worst levels of violent crime, with 52 people murdered every 24 hours, for an annual murder rate of 43.1 per 100,000 people. Added to that each year are 200,000 robberies, 55,000 rapes, and half a million cases of assault and attempted murder. South Africa’s police, who have arrested 300 people since the rioting started, have been quick to call the recent violence another symptom of these trends.

Most troubling for the authorities is the fact that the hot spots of anti-immigrant violence are some of the same townships that had been the furnaces of anti-apartheid rebellion. A little more than a decade after the end of apartheid, the new government is sending the same riot police in the same armored trucks into those same townships to suppress mob violence against immigrants. Although the latest wave of xenophobic violence has targeted immigrant communities in Johannesburg, last year the Somali community in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth came under attack.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s dream of South Africa as a “Rainbow Nation” of exemplary inclusiveness is being negated. Fourteen years of ANC rule have failed to reverse many of the deep social inequalities inherited from the apartheid era, and the strain caused by mass unemployment, poor sanitation and limited services in many townships has now erupted in a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing. Last November, the South African Institute of Race Relations estimated that 4.2 million people were living on $1 a day or less in 2005, up from 1.9 million in 1996. Even when it has managed to suppress the current upsurge in anti-immigrant violence, the government faces a monumental challenge in transforming the poverty and despair that has fueled the hatred.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com