Will foreign workers flocking to World Cup face xenophobic attacks?
With less than a week before the opening of the South Africa World Cup, an influx of foreigners in search of work has raised ethnic tensions. Some fear a repeat of the 2008 xenophobic riots that killed 67 foreign migrants.
Johannesburg, South Africa
Well before dawn every day, Phinius Mawira takes a crate of oranges, apples, bananas, peanuts, and other snacks to one of the busiest street corners in the township of Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg.Skip to next paragraph
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Customers are happy with his service, the Zimbabwean migrant says, because most other shops in the area don’t open until well after most commuters have already left Diepsloot on minibus taxis for their jobs in Johannesburg. But some customers whisper the warning: “After the World Cup is over, you’d better run back to your country. People will come for you.”
Those are words Mr. Mawira takes quite seriously, given the xenophobic riots of 2008 that killed 67 foreign migrants who were perceived to be taking South African jobs. Some 200,000 migrants took shelter in tent city camps before the South African government shut them down, often returning the migrants to the townships that expelled them with no attempt at reconciliation.
“We are all worried about that,” says Mawira, who left Zimbabwe two years ago, after a national election failed to dislodge the long-ruling autocratic President Robert Mugabe. “Most of the people here think that we foreigners take their jobs. But this is just my business.” He stares a bit and says, “People talk about what happened in 2008, and me, I’m a Zimbabwean. I’m alone here. I’m worried.”
The government says there are no indications that a storm is brewing.
Yet there are reasons for concern. South Africa has high unemployment, despite 15 years of economic growth. The World Cup gave the country a boost, but now that all the stadiums, hotels, rail-links, and roads have been built, South Africa has likely reached a peak. After the World Cup ends July 11, there will be less need for waiters, bell-boys, and others in the service industry.
If boom leads to bust, recent history suggests that locals might take out their frustrations on migrants who appear to be prospering.
Government prepares for possible xenophobic attacks
But South African officials say there will be no return to the bad old days of 2008.
Last week, government spokesman Themba Maseko told the Monitor that South Africa would do all it could to protect its image by ensuring that no foreigner is attacked.
Mr. Maseko warned that any xenophobic attacks perpetrated against foreign nationals would not be tolerated. He noted that the cabinet had reestablished the interministerial committee (IMC), which focuses on and deals with incidents and threats of xenophobia attacks on foreign nationals.
"This came after reports of possible attacks on foreigners after the 2010 FIFA World Cup," says Maseko. "The law enforcement agencies will not hesitate to act speedily and decisively against anyone found to incite or participate in violent acts against foreign nationals."
But South African citizens, mainly from the poor black townships, argue that an attack could not be ruled out. Interviews with a number of South Africans shows a deep animosity toward foreigners in their country.
'The best is to kick them out violently'
Kabelo Gumede of Katlehong township, located some 12 miles south of Johannesburg Central Business District (CBD), says he is fed up with foreign nationals coming to South Africa to make him jobless.
"Every morning I go right round Johannesburg city looking for a job, but I can't find any because of these foreigners,” says Mr. Gumede. “The best thing is to kick them out violently."