Monday, May 26, 2008

Is this the end of the rainbow nation?

'Nowhere to go'

George Nyagato, a Zimbabwean with a bloody gash across his shoulder blade, will spend another day crouching behind a pile of grey bricks near a window.

Nyagato and 2 000 other Zimbabweans have locked and barricaded the doors of the Central Methodist Church against the South African gangs who have been terrorising refugees and immigrants for the past 10 days in an outbreak of some of the worst xenophobic violence in Southern Africa in years.

"Let them come," says Nyagato, a 25-year-old plumber. "They burnt our brothers alive. We are ready for them."

Such words seem out of step with the image of South Africa born in February 1990 as Nelson Mandela walked free after 27 years in prison. It marked the birth of the rainbow nation.

White sceptics were defied, reconciliation swept away apartheid, and the world's most progressive Constitution was signed into law. An economic boom ensued and South Africa even won the honour of hosting the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

Yet the rainbow nation looks like little more than a shallow advertising slogan.

In the past week foreigners have been "necklaced" with burning tyres by rampaging mobs, shacks have been smashed and 25 000 people have sought shelter in churches, community halls and police stations. By Friday the attacks had spread as far as the Western Cape. Up to 50 foreigners - from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Somalia and Pakistan - have been killed.

For the first time since the end of apartheid, troops have been on the streets of the townships. Thousands of Mozambicans have boarded buses and gone home.

Amid it all, President Thabo Mbeki seems oddly absent. Newspaper headlines cry out: 'Where are our leaders?'

In the Pritchard Street church, chaos reigns. Here, as in other impromptu reception sites around Johannesburg, it is everyone to their own. Some traders - also Zimbabwean - have moved in and are selling food. There is one shower and four lavatories for 2 000 people. You sleep where you can. Blankets are brought in by volunteers.

The authorities are nowhere to be seen.

And this place is better organised than most because it has been a refuge for persecuted Zimbabweans for six years.

Nyagato arrived in South Africa five days ago and went straight to his stepfather at Makause squatter camp, east of Johannesburg. "I had to come. I voted for the MDC. I was beaten," he said, showing the gash in his shoulder blade. "I ran away, but I spent only one night in Makause. Then the war came. They burnt my blanket and my bag with all my papers and my clothes. Now I have only this," he said, indicating his trainers and blue overalls.

'If we stay in South Africa we are killed'

No one knows how many immigrants there are in South Africa. Figures of up to 6,5-million for a population of 49-million are commonly quoted.

Anderson Ingwe (28) a car mechanic, said being in South Africa was terrifying. "If we stay in South Africa we are killed. If we go back we will be accused of being MDC supporters and we will be beaten or killed. Here in South Africa we feel so unwelcome.

When the men came to attack the place where I was staying, they had policemen with them.

"It is almost as though the South African authorities want this to happen. If that is so, then they should just say peacefully: 'You are not welcome, Zimbabweans. Now go home.' What is going on is inhuman and unfair. When I grew up in Harare there were South Africans in my class. We treated them like our brothers," said Ingwe, who arrived in South Africa 18 months ago.

Black African immigrants who have been in the country for much longer are not surprised by the explosion in xenophobia. Pedro Chinavana, a Mozambican, had been living in Makause shantytown for nine years before his shack was burnt last week. "South African blacks do not know Africa. They were cut off by apartheid and they have a terrible inferiority complex. They think our skin is too dark and they call us Amakwerekwere.

The police speak to us in Zulu and, if we cannot reply, they demand our rands. They say: 'You don't have rands in your country. That is South African money. This is mine.' They think they are doing their country a favour."

Since 1999, Mbeki, a former communist, has presided over an annual economic growth rate of 5%. His two terms in power - which end next year - have been informed by hovering threats from overseas multinationals that they will pull out of the country if the African National Congress's economic policies do not please them.

In return, the white business community has tolerated a black empowerment programme that has created a new black elite and a much-needed, but often under-qualified, black middle class.

In the process, corruption has taken hold at all levels and the poor in crime-ridden townships have been especially hard hit by mismanagement of public resources - social grants, education, water, housing and electricity provision. The official unemployment rate has dropped to 25%. But some estimates put the real figure at 40%.

"They say we take their jobs, and in a way it is true," said Nora Tapiwa of the Zimbabwe Diaspora Forum. "South Africans remain poorly educated and prefer to speak the vernacular rather than English. Employers, especially in the service industries, prefer Zimbabweans. Higher up the ladder, in banks and insurance companies, you even find many Zimbabweans benefiting from black economic empowerment. We are smart people and we are immigrants, so we don't sit around waiting for the government to deliver."

An astounding lack of political delivery surrounds the South African crisis.

Neither Mbeki nor his likely successor, Jacob Zuma, have altered their diaries in the past week to visit the displaced or speak to the nation. Instead, ministers, police chiefs and senior civil servants have put their energy into a two-pronged exercise of denial, aimed at proving that the attacks are linked neither to poverty nor to xenophobia.

The intention is clearly to deflect any accusations that Mbeki's "quiet diplomacy" over Zimbabwe has led to an uncontrollable influx of foreigners and, thus, to xenophobia. Neither will the ANC tolerate suggestions that it has neglected its own poor.

'Third force'

Ministers and senior civil servants have gone to extraordinary lengths. National Intelligence Agency director-general Manala Manzini has dusted off struggle rhetoric and claimed that a "third force" - mysterious right-wing "elements" that supported the apartheid regime - is at work with a view to destabilising the 2009 elections.

Others, such as police spokesperson Govandsami Mariemuthoo in Gauteng province, insist that "copycat criminal elements, not xenophobia" are at work.

As a result, it is now unclear what charges, if any, will be brought against the 400 people police claimed last week had been arrested in connection with the attacks in the Johannesburg area.

The reigning confusion feeds into the foreigners' widely expressed belief that the attacks have been orchestrated by elements within the ANC - a party that has been deeply divided since Zuma was elected party president against Mbeki's will last December.

Grassroots supporters of the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party, which fought the ANC in the early 1990s, are also being accused of involvement.

At his office in Central Methodist Church, Bishop Paul Verryn has become convinced that "the attacks are carefully strategised and manipulated. The motivation is to create a sense of ungovernability."

He confirms claims that police officers have "chaperoned" attackers. But he also warns that the riots are a reaction to poverty and "we could be seeing the start of an uprising of the poor".

Tapiwa stresses that the attacks started at Itireleng, near Pretoria, in February when a Somali man was killed and 150 people sought refuge at the local police station. She says the violence has been allowed to escalate out of control. "It would not have taken much for the government to stamp down firmly on the early incidents, to send the message that hate crimes will not be tolerated under the South African constitution."

Established immigrants see the start of a worrying trend. "Either there is government complicity, and that is unconscionable, or the government does not know how to react," said writer Alois Rwiyegura, from Burundi, himself the survivor of an attack nine years ago.

"If the South African government does not know what to do, then how will it react if - as many of us fear - the violence degenerates into inter-ethnic clashes between poor South Africans?"

Loren Landau, director of the Forced Migration Studies Programme at Witwatersrand University, warned that violence was likely to escalate unless the government sent a clear signal that it would ensure the safety of those being targeted. He said that political figures, such as Zuma, who have conceded that the attacks are xenophobic, have argued that South Africans should be kind to other Africans because they supported the anti-apartheid struggle. "The reason we should not attack people is not because they once helped South Africa. It is because they are part of our society and we have made constitutional, moral and legal commitments to protect the rights of all who live in South Africa," said Landau.

He said that corruption in the police service and chaos in the Home Affairs Department had contributed to a situation where many South Africans did not know the difference between legal and illegal migrants.

They believe foreigners contribute to high levels of crime, even though statistics show that non-South Africans - despite being constantly victimised by the police - make up only 3% of the prison population.

'I cannot go outside'

The government remains opposed to establishing refugee camps and, even though Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said last week that the debate on immigration policy should be reopened, she stressed that South Africa would continue its "correct" policy of allowing migrants, including refugees, to work.

George Nyagato says he did not come to Johannesburg to work. "I am just looking for shelter from political persecution." Even if he did want a job, he would have to be brave enough, or stupid enough, to leave the relative safety of the chaotic Central Methodist Church. "I cannot go outside," he said, turning his trouser pockets inside out.

"What if I meet the police? All I have to prove who I am is this," he says, and produces a crumpled piece of paper. "It's a used bus ticket from Musina to Johannesburg. They burnt all my other papers, my passport and my qualifications. This ticket is all I have to show that I am who I said I am - refugee who just arrived from Zimbabwe. But do you think the South Africans will give me asylum on the strength of this?"

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