Xenophobia: Deep rooted, ever simmering beneath SA surface 

Earlier this week I chewed the fat with one of South Africa’s leading businessmen. Inevitably, the conversation swung to xenophobia, a malaise that’s put SA back into the wrong kind of global headlines. My friend shared how at a recent dinner party of seven couples from his social strata, he polled them on how many employed non-SAs they had in their households. He’d expected around 30%. Instead, it was 100%. He’s been asking around elsewhere and has concluded SA’s domestic help has become dominated by foreigners, displacing hundreds of thousands of locals. He has strong views on how this must be rectified. Another perspective is to listen what the market is telling us. Well-intentioned though it may be, SA’s inflexible Labour Legislation has some seriously negative unintended consequences where it really matters. Much as ideological politicians act like it can, their words and desires are no match for economic realities. Alec Hogg

Demonstrators carry placards during a march against xenophobia in downtown Johannesburg, April 23, 2015. A wave of anti-immigrant violence has so far claimed seven lives in trouble spots in Durban and Johannesburg, to where the government announced the deployment of defence forces on Tuesday.  REUTERS/Mike Hutchings       TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Demonstrators carry placards during a march against xenophobia in downtown Johannesburg, April 23, 2015.  REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

By Kristen Van Schie of Agence France-Presse

Immigrants fleeing a wave of deadly xenophobic violence in South Africa have described how fear drove them to try to hide their nationalities even before the attacks began.

“When we’re taking taxis, we switch off our phones and avoid speaking in our mother tongues,” said Congolese hairdresser Aimee Bebedi, who is based in the eastern port city of Durban, where the violence erupted three weeks ago.

“At the moment we’re being attacked by our Zulu brothers, but even before that, if you went to the hospital, for example, and tried to explain yourself in English, you were mistreated,” she said.

Foreigners from other parts of Africa living and working in South Africa’s poor townships are called ‘kwerekwere’, a slur mocking their languages and accents.

At least seven people have died in the violence and thousands have been forced to flee their homes. Many have returned to their own countries — such as Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique — but others are sheltering in special camps.

There, they are trying to decide whether it is safe to return to their lives in a country where they can feel unwelcome even at the best of times.

“They tell us the violence is over, but I don’t know,” said Patrick, a Congolese asylum seeker who fled to Johannesburg after the attacks flared up in Durban.

“It’s calm now because the police are there, but what about when they leave?”

Patrick is one of about 50 displaced foreigners staying in tents in a small charity-run camp in Johannesburg’s Mayfair suburb.

The attacks have been blamed largely on a speech by Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini, who last month accused foreigners of causing South Africa’s high crime rate.

But it’s a vilification that immigrants face on a daily basis, said Braam Hanekom, director of Passop (People against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty), a Cape Town charity that supports asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants.

“That demonisation goes a long way to creating an environment where such senseless targeted attacks occur,” he said.

‘You don’t belong here’ –

People may only become aware of xenophobia when they see deaths splashed across the newspapers, but it constantly simmers below the surface, said Trish Erasmus, head of the Lawyers for Human Rights’ refugee and migrant programme.

REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Outside Erasmus’ office, complainants lined up: some turned away from hospitals because of their nationalities, others from schools or police stations, and others by immigration officials who were meant to help process their refugee applications.

“Accessing documentation for foreign people is really hampered by a number of factors outside of their control,” said Erasmus.

“The system is plagued with backlogs and serious corruption and an extremely inefficient refugee status determination procedure.”

Without documents, access to basic services and work becomes a daily struggle.

But the number of tolerant people in South Africa far outnumbers those who have a hatred of foreigners, said Abdirikaz Ali Osman, secretary general of the Somali Community Board of South Africa.

A refugee who fled his country by boat in 2007 and who is now based in an area of Johannesburg nicknamed Little Mogadishu, he said his experiences in South Africa had been largely positive.

But he has not escaped the insult directed at his countrymen, many of whom who own small shops in the townships: “You don’t belong here.”

Schoolchildren hold a placard in support of demonstrators during a march against xenophobia. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Maybe the locals have a point, he said.

“Foreigners come here and open shops and then barricade themselves inside their shops, believing they will be killed,” he said.

“There’s a language barrier and they don’t integrate themselves into their new communities. We need to change that.”

Osman’s view that most South Africans do not hate foreigners has been borne out by demonstrations against xenophobia in cities across the country.

In Johannesburg on Thursday, several thousand people marched to protest against the attacks, which have revived memories of xenophobic bloodshed in 2008, when 62 people were killed.

But at the displaced persons camp in the city, Patrick leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his eyes wide.

“Do you believe it’s really over?” he asked. “What must we do?”

© 1994-2015 Agence France-Presse

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