Xenophobic South Africa shrugs off train murders

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IT WAS a terrifying way to die. The traders - two Senegalese and one Mozambican - were chased like animals through the train by a mob that screamed racist slogans and bayed for their blood.

One trader was thrown, or jumped, from the train. He was hit by another locomotive. His two panic-stricken friends scrambled on the roof and were electrocuted by overhead cables. When the train pulled into Irene Station, south of Pretoria, with the bodies still smouldering on the roof, one passenger told a local radio station that the men had been accused of stealing South African jobs. After that, he said, they were beaten and whipped.

That was a week ago. Yesterday police admitted they had not found a witness willing to make a statement, although there were 400 people on the train.

"The act itself was horribly barbaric," says Vinodh Jaichend, national director of Lawyers for Human Rights. "But just as frightening has been the wall of silence since."

That speaks volumes about the xenophobia that is sweeping the country. Anti-foreigner feeling is growing among poor black South Africans as the country struggles with rocketing unemployment, a plummeting rand and the world-wide onslaught on emerging markets. The three traders were in the wrong place at the wrong time. While they worked the carriages, selling cheap clothes to commuters, their attackers boarded the train fresh from a job rally.

The leader of the unemployed group later claimed that all they did was sing a few rousing songs. The foreigners, he said, had panicked and had only themselves to blame for their deaths. But singing does not force men on to the roof of a moving train or into the path of another.

As the charred bodies were being removed, discarded anti-foreigner posters littered the platform. They carried an ominous warning. "We want jobs not foreiners [sic]," one read. "Or else we will take the law into our own hands and do something negetive [sic]."

If the silence from witnesses has been deafening, the protests from civil society have been decidedly muted. After a few tardy condemnations, no one has run with the issue. The police argue that little or no progress has been made in the case because the traders' friends - probably illegal immigrants - have also failed to come forward. That officers have identified only one of the men and know nothing about the others might also reflect society's collective shrug.

"South Africans are looking for scapegoats for all their ills," says Mr Jaichend. "Before apartheid ended we had no immigration problem because no one wanted to come here. The irony is that those who lead South Africa today were all given refuge, education and opportunities in other countries."

Even officialdom stokes the fire. Last week 10 police and government members of a Pretoria aliens investigation unit were suspended, accused of taking bribes and soliciting sex from immigrants facing deportation.

Still, South Africa remains an economic paradise on a poverty-ridden continent. Over two weeks last month more than 800 illegal immigrants - mostly Mozambicans - were arrested in Mpumalanga province.

Several academic studies have challenged the notion that foreign workers are "stealing" jobs. Research concluded that many were running businesses which created local employment. The train murderers are clearly unconvinced.