Ethnic cleansing: South Africa's shame

Horrific attacks on immigrants in the townships is a bitter legacy of apartheid. Jeremy Gordin in Johannesburg and Raymond Whitaker report

It was as if the apartheid era had returned in South Africa. To a world largely unaware of the growing tensions between the country's poorest and the migrants who have streamed in from the rest of Africa, the sight of soldiers on township streets, policemen using shotguns for crowd control, and, above all, the sickening spectacle of "necklacing" came as a shock.

What passions could arouse a mob to place a petrol-soaked tyre around a man's body, pinning his arms to his side, and burn him to death? Under white rule it was the brutal punishment for township informers; now it is the struggle for survival under an ANC government that many accuse of having become remote and ineffectual.

According to critics, President Thabo Mbeki and his ministers have been more interested in winning the approval of international financial institutions than in focusing on the widening gap between rich and poor, and the competition at the bottom between locals and foreigners. Significantly, the trouble first erupted on 11 May in dilapidated Alexandra township, north-east of Johannesburg's city centre and right alongside Sandton, one of the richest areas in South Africa.

Nowhere else in the country is the legacy of apartheid so visible: while a sprinkling of wealthy black entrepreneurs and administrators have made the jump to Sandton, it is still predominantly white. The population of "Alex", as everyone calls it, remains entirely black. But in the township's narrow, dusty streets, South Africans have been joined by people from all over the continent – mainly Zimbabweans fleeing economic chaos under Robert Mugabe and Mozambicans to whom even Alex looks prosperous, but also Nigerians, Somalis and Congolese.

By definition, those prepared to leave their own country in search of a better life are often more enterprising than those who have never stirred from home, and many of the shops and stalls in Alex and other poor areas were run by foreigners, arousing envy. With unemployment having grown by 12 per cent last year to nearly four million jobless – 23 per cent of the workforce – South Africans believed migrants were taking their jobs. They were also easy scapegoats for the country's appalling crime rate.

From Alex two weeks ago, violence against foreigners, usually by crowds going from house to house at night, spread rapidly to Diepsloot, one of the vast squatter camps on the edge of Johannesburg. When the police intervened, the attacks shifted to smaller squatter camps east of the city. It was here that the dreadful "necklacing" death of one victim was photographed.

By yesterday there had been outbreaks in Northwest province, Durban and Cape Town. But by far the worst of the violence was in Gauteng province, around Johannesburg. Forty-three people have died and about 23,000 foreigners, mainly Zimbabweans and Mozambicans, have been forced by armed gangs to flee their homes with nothing but their lives. The Mozambican government declared a state of emergency to help its citizens, and by yesterday more than 15,000 had gone home, some in chartered buses, many others on their own.

Jose Abilio arrived with nothing to show for his five years in South Africa but two shirts in a plastic bag. "I left everything when the mobs came to attack our home in Alexandra, and since then I have been living at a police station," he said.

In grimly misnamed Primrose, a drab inner suburb of Germiston, east of Johannesburg, a refugee camp had sprung up on waste ground between the local police station and the Primrose Methodist church. About 2,000 Mozambicans and Zimbabweans who fled last Sunday from a pogrom in the local squatter camp, less than a mile away, were crammed into plastic tents. They were fed by charities, but in the freezing Highveld winter, with too few portable toilets, the scene was miserable and squalid. People tried to sleep under piles of blankets, or stood around fires they made by pulling branches off the nearby trees.

While some of the Alex victims said the attacks were perpetrated by "Zulus" from a nearby hostel, those at the Primrose camp said their attackers were some of their closest neighbours. They came at night and told the migrants to go back where they came from, there and then, or die. These neighbours then stole their meagre possessions and demolished their shacks.

"You know that so many people have been beaten to death and one of them necklaced," said Solomon Chibebe , a Mozambican who had made his own neat, small tent with blankets on the side of the waste ground for himself, his wife, Anita, and young daughter, Constance. "So when they came to my house and told me to go ... I went."

"It is the Zulus, it is the Zulus," shouted another man, a Zimbabwean. "No, no, that is rubbish," said his compatriot, Henry Dziva . "If you want to blame someone, it's the newspapers, especially the tabloids. They always write, 'Foreigners raped this one, foreigners raped that one, foreigners are the criminals'."

There have been numerous stories in the newspapers about Zimbabwean criminal gangs and Nigerian drug lords. Foreigners are perceived to have, and perhaps indeed have, jumped the housing lists by paying bribes to move into so-called RDP (reconstruction and development programme) houses – built by the government, with electricity and sanitation – before locals. Township dwellers, squatter-camp inhabitants and rural people have been short-changed by the civil service. "Years of corruption within the civil service have resulted in it becoming the breeding ground of what Nelson Mandela once called the scoundrels who prey on the public purse," wrote Jabulani Sikhakhane of Business Report last week.

But what the wave of violence has shown most clearly is that South Africa's isolation from the rest of the continent has not disappeared with the end of apartheid. Never did Mr Mbeki seem so out of tune with the public mood than when when he spoke out on the violence last week. His condemnation of "these shameful and criminal acts" was to be expected, but his finger-wagging admonition to South Africans that "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" cut little ice.

More representative was the black police constable guarding the Primrose camp. "There are just too many of these people here, you know, and something was going to happen to them," he shrugged, before going off on patrol. The marauders have been very careful to confine themselves to attacking foreigners and their "property" only, and South Africans have largely been indifferent.

Only 50 yards from the camp is a brightly lit petrol station with a Steers fast food restaurant. "Ja, I watched them hacking people with pangas [machetes] just across the road," said the white manager. "But they didn't come here, so we just carried on. Who knows, some of the killers might have come across here for a hamburger in the middle of things, I don't know."

ANC leaders who spent years in exile feel a debt of gratitude to the African countries that sheltered them, as Mr Mbeki's statement shows. It also helps to explain his failure to act against Mr Mugabe's misrule in Zimbabwe, with results that have come to haunt him at home. There are said to be as many as three million Zimbabweans in South Africa, and they are not as willing as the Mozambicans to return home.

When questions about the growing influx were raised at the end of last year, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, Minister of Home Affairs, said the government refused to recognise them as refugees. That would have contradicted the official stance that there was nothing wrong in Zimbabwe, but the minister assured questioners that "contingency arrangements were in place" if there was a humanitarian crisis. Instead, its incompetence has been exposed, and its response to the violence has been to blame a mysterious "third force".

Essop Pahad, the Minister in the Presidency, said right-wingers had always targeted what he called the "lumpenproletariat" with xenophobic propaganda. The fact that pamphlets were printed, warning foreigners to leave the country, was taken as evidence that the attacks were organised rather than spontaneous, accompanied by rumours that Zulu-based groups were behind the violence.

Others, such as Steven Friedman of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, countered that the government had simply been ignoring for years the powder keg of resentment that has been waiting to be ignited – and that may have been set off by, among other things, the farce of the recent Zimbabwean presidential elections and Mr Mbeki's obvious powerlessness.

Whatever the cause, to some extent the perpetrators have succeeded in doing in 14 days what the South African government has not been able to do in 14 years – "dealing with" the human flood that has swept into the country since the end of apartheid. But their methods raise another spectre from the last century, which first gained a name not in Africa but the Balkans: that of ethnic cleansing.

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