South Africa's brutal new bias

Seven immigrants from other African nations have been killed in xenophobic attacks since April.

Fearing for his life, Zoe Nkongolo fled a ruthless dictatorship in his native Zaire in 1994. The union president, democracy activist, and engineer traveled three days by truck to what he thought would be a haven - South Africa.

Now, six years later, he is again frightened - this time, not because of his advocacy for democracy or freedom, but simply because he is a foreigner.

At least seven foreigners have been killed in xenophobic attacks across South Africa since April. In the most dramatic incident, two brothers from Angola, refugees from their country's intermittent civil war, were beaten up in their Cape Town home then set on fire.

"When I go to the hospital, the doctors ask me why I'm here," said Mr. Nkongolo. "They say I'm taking jobs away from locals. People are very hostile."

Nkongolo is taking part in one of several private and government programs to counteract xenophobia, which is a legacy of the country's isolation under apartheid. Under white rule, South Africa had little contact with its neighbors. Now, suddenly, South Africans are confronted with strangers from faraway countries they know nothing about.

The rise in xenophobia parallels South Africans' increasing frustration with the slow pace of their country's post-apartheid transformation. "South Africans want to find someone to blame for this," said Jenny Parsley, National Coordinator of the Roll Back Xenophobia Campaign. "Unfortunately, foreigners seem to be the scapegoat."

After decades of apartheid, which demonized blacks, disgruntled South Africans are now focusing their wrath almost exclusively on fellow Africans, rather than immigrants from Eastern Europe and Asia.

South Africans commonly blame Nigerian immigrants for this country's high crime rate and drug dealing. Mozambicans are thought of as car thieves. Highly educated Zimbabweans are blamed for stealing jobs away from locals.

A recent newspaper headline trumpeted: "Ruthless conmen (sic) from West Africa see South Africa as a swindler's paradise." The story was about "cut-throat Nigerian crime lords."

When the white government of South Africa fell in 1994, millions of black South Africans, for the first time, became hopeful for the future. They imagined improved schools, housing, and healthcare. They expected better job opportunities.

So did millions of Africans watching north of the border. South Africa has an unemployment rate of about 30 percent - a dismal figure for any Western nation. Nevertheless, this new democracy ranks among the strongest economies on the continent. South Africa's GNP, for example, is 35 times greater than neighbor Mozambique's.

"South Africa is seen as a salvation for many in the region," said Mark Heffernan, acting regional director of the International Organization for Migration. "It is an attraction for people throughout Africa."

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of immigrants have crossed legally and illegally into South Africa over the past six years to share in the promise of a new and vibrant South Africa. About 60,000 people have applied for refugee status. Estimates of undocumented immigrants in South Africa range from about 1.5 million to 8 million - a staggering figure in a country of only 45 million.

Now, six years later, both immigrants and residents are sorely disappointed.

In the new South Africa, beggars still hold out their palms at Johannesburg stoplights. Hospitals still have no money for new bed sheets, much less high-tech equipment. Black pupils still practice their penmanship in the dirt under shade trees, not in notebooks.

Xenophobia announced its arrival in South Africa in September 1998, when an angry mob killed three foreigners on a commuter train outside Pretoria - on the pretext that they had stolen jobs from South Africans. While many were surprised by the ferocity of the killings, few were surprised by the sentiments behind it.

"This is one of the few issues in which all segments of South African society are unified, " said Mengesha Kebede, the UN High Commission for Refugees representative for Southern Africa. "Black, white, they all oppose immigrants."

A 1998 public opinion survey by the Southern African Migration Project found that 25 percent of all South Africans favor a complete ban on immigration. Another 45 percent support strict limits on immigration.

Highly publicized crackdowns on crime often take the form of sweeps through immigrant neighborhoods in which police arrest anyone without proper documentation. Police here arrest more people for violating immigration laws each year than for any other reason, according to Human Rights Watch, which has criticized South Africa for its treatment of immigrants. South Africa deports almost 200,000 Africans each year.

The Cape Town Refugee Forum, a grassroots immigrant-aid group, is organizing public meetings aimed at getting South Africans to understand the plight of the refugees. "We tell people about what happened to us in our country," said Nkongolo, who spent his first night in South Africa at a police station, and his first year living in a halfway house with common criminals because he could find no other housing. "People in the audience end up crying."

South Africa's Human Rights Commission and the UN sponsor the "Roll Back Xenophobia Campaign," which uses the media to spark public discussion. Last week the popular soap opera "Khululeka" focused on anti-immigrant sentiment. The characters asked themselves if they would continue going to their church after a new priest - from Nigeria - arrived. A radio series on immigrants' lives and a photography exhibit documenting immigrants' lives have also emerged from the campaign.

Xenophobia is also a topic at a National Conference on Racism that began Wednesday in Johannesburg.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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