Foreigners return to South African township after apology for violence

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The Independent Online

It was one of many townships across South Africa hit by xenophobic violence but one of the first to say sorry and plead with its foreign victims to return home.

Yesterday, a trickle of Zimbabweans made their way back to Masiphumelele, on the Cape Peninsula – Xhosa for "new beginning" – after a public apology at a shabby tented village erected on an Atlantic beach.

Whether the public act of contrition is a one-off or the beginning of a national public reconciliation remains to be seen, but for some immigrants chased from their homes days earlier, it was welcome.

Barbara Sithole, 21, who moved from Harare two years ago to escape the economic and political oppression under Robert Mugabe, said: "They have said sorry and want us back. I am happy to come back here but I did feel a bit nervous. It was very frightening last week," said Ms Sithole, holding her son, Anton, in their one-room shack.

Several hundred fled the township of 28,000 people at the end of last week as gangs of men armed with axes and knives looted foreign-owned shops and attacked foreigners. They claim immigrants take scarce jobs and houses and commit crime.

Community leaders in Masiphumelele say they were taken by surprise by the level and viciousness of the violence but were now trying to make amends.

Nontembiso Madikane, a former Cape Town city councillor for the ANC who has lived in the township for 23 years, said: "We are ashamed and embarrassed about what has happened. It was a minority of people only, not everyone. Some of us went to the refugee camp on Sunday and apologised for what happened. We handed over a long statement and some of them have now returned."

After the violence which started last Thursday, immigrants fled to the local Ocean View police station and were then taken to a temporary centre at a nearby resort called Soetwater.

Giant marquees were erected and volunteers provided food and clothing to hundreds of people, mostly Zimbabweans. About 2,300 people are now at the site from across the Cape Town area.

In Masiphumelele, residents began identifying ringleaders to police and went door-to-door collecting stolen goods to return to homecoming refugees.