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In South Africa, poverty fuels a xenophobic flame (+video)

Most of the culprits behind the recent attacks on foreigners live in shantytowns where 40 percent of residents are unemployed and most feel profoundly marginalized.

On a recent afternoon in the factory-lined Johannesburg suburb of Actonville, a small crowd of men sit huddled over cups of umqombothi, a frothy traditional beer, and describe their homes. 

The roofs leak, they say, and the toilets overflow. As many as 10 of them squeeze into a single cramped bedroom, sometimes without even a mattress.

Behind them sits a sprawling encampment of overcrowded residence halls originally built by the apartheid government to house migrant black laborers brought here to power the city’s gold mines and factories. Today, the brick structures slump with decay, windows gap-toothed and rats scrambling over the garbage piled in the passageways between buildings.

“We live like dogs here,” says Elvis Pretorius, a construction worker.

A searing indictment of the living conditions for many of Johannesburg’s urban poor, Mr. Pretorius’s statement also provides a small glimpse of the source of the xenophobic violence that has swept across South Africa over the past three weeks. So far the violence has claimed at least seven lives and forced thousands of foreigners to flee their homes, most of them in the eastern port city of Durban. And it has radiated largely from the informal shack settlements that mushroom out from the country’s growing metropolises, as well as the bleak workers’ dormitories — like this one — tucked into its industrial zones. 

The roots of residents’ anger are in some ways simple. Those who live here are poor, and in a country with an official unemployment rate of more than 25 percent, competition for scarce resources — jobs, housing, food — is grinding. For many, the relative success of migrants, particularly those working in visible public spaces as traders and shopkeepers, is a persistent indignity.

But the sources of the violence also reach deeper, stitched into both South Africa’s exclusionary history and its deeply unequal present. 

“Many middle-class South Africans do not necessarily have a full sense of the brutality of daily life for many of the poor in this country over the past two decades,” says Suren Pillay, an anthropologist at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape and one of the authors of a comprehensive, government-backed study of South Africa’s most deadly wave of xenophobic violence, which occurred in May 2008.  “The only way to address this in the long term is to address the structural violence under which most poor South Africans live.”

A history of separation

For decades, apartheid schooled South Africans rigorously in notions of difference and division. When it ended, many argue, those ideas didn’t go away but simply shifted ground: South Africans on one side, foreigners on the other.

That insularity helped give rise to suspicions that immigrants were stealing scarce jobs and social services, particularly in the most impoverished communities. In the shack settlements, 40 percent of the population is unemployed and two-thirds of households have an income of less than 1633 rand ($133) per month, according to government statistics.

“There are too many foreigners working here, but we can’t just throw them out,” says Pretorius, who estimates he earns about 2000 rand ($165) per month doing piecemeal construction work in nearby suburbs. “They’re only looking for money like we are.”

The indignity of life in communities like Actonville has not gone unnoticed by government, says Jessie Duarte, deputy secretary general of the ruling African National Congress, who says officials are working on these problems.

“After 1994 we celebrated our freedom, but we didn’t really address a lot of the residual anger people have,” she says. “That’s what we’re battling right now.”

For the many foreigners who are perplexed by the deep-seated hatred, there are no solutions in sight. Many have critiqued the government for its reactive response to the repeated outbreaks of violence since the late 1990s. Calls for reconciliation and forgiveness, they note, frequently go unheeded in poor communities where each day is a basic struggle for survival.

“There are deeply rooted issues here that the government of South Africa is trying to address,” says Bene M’Poko, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s ambassador to South Africa. “But when you have so many deeply rooted issues, all you need is a small trigger for the fire to inflame.”

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