Attacks on foreigners spread in S. Africa

African immigrants may soon be forced to fight back against attacks by South African mobs.

Jerome Delay/AP
Forced to flee: Malawians registered Wednesday at a church-turned-refugee-camp near Johannesburg, South Africa.

South Africa's violence against foreigners took a turn for the worse on Wednesday as beleaguered foreign immigrants organized themselves to fight back.

In the Johannesburg township of Tshepisong, Mozambicans and Zimbabwean immigrants fled from gangs of South African residents, while immigrants in other neighborhoods threatened to resist attacks.

"If it means I have to fight back to protect my wife and children and property, I will," a Zimbabwean immigrant named Madalala Ndlovu told the Pretoria Times. "If the police can't stop these thugs, then I will. I'll kill them if I have to."

With community leaders urging against an escalation of violence, the South African government announced that it would start deploying military fixed-wing aircraft and armed personnel carriers to back up police, as the violence entered its 10th day.

"The organization of foreigners is to be expected, given the police's extreme difficulty in getting the violence under control," says Frans Kronje, deputy chairman of the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), a liberal think tank in Johannesburg.

"Foreigners have three options," says Mr. Kronje. "To go back to Zimbabwe, which is not a nicer option than what they already face here. To get into one of the informal camps around police stations, churches, and community centers, which are already estimated to have 13,000 displaced people in the Johannesburg area alone. Or they can organize to defend themselves, which then makes it much more difficult for the police to control."

Violence spreading

With 24 dead, 13,000 homeless, and attacks spreading to the racially mixed coastal city of Durban, South Africa's potent mix of economic hardship and ethnic targeting shows no signs of stopping.

It's a problem that has been a long time coming, with many South Africans blaming their government for failing to deliver on their promises of providing jobs, housing, and better services after the fall of apartheid in 1994, and also failing to ensure that South Africans actually reap the benefits of the current economic boom.

If left unsolved, the current violence could have enormous domestic social consequences for years to come and could damage the country's plans to hold a soccer World CupAfrica's first – in 2010.

"Everybody is baffled why this is happening now," says Carole Njoki, World Vision's advocacy advisor in Johannesburg. "But locals see foreigners taking their jobs, and they see that the allocation of low-income housing is inequitable. With high inflation and high unemployment, people's patience has reached the breaking point."

South Africa's working-poor population appears to be in downward spiral of economic woe.

High food prices – a global phenomenon – have combined with persistent unemployment – officially estimated at 24 percent, but thought to be as high as 40 percent – to create an angry atmosphere where local South Africans tend to blame the foreigners in their midst.

Foreigners scapegoated for woes

The South African government, intentionally or not, often gives citizens a scapegoat, blaming everything from high crime to the stress on state services such as electricity, healthcare, and education on the continued influx of Zimbabweans and Mozambicans.

Many experts say that the government, therefore, shares some of the blame for sparking the current crisis.

"Essentially, [the government's] failures contributed to create a perfect storm of lawlessness, poverty, and unfulfilled expectations, which has now erupted into violence," the SAIRR said in a statement this past weekend. "In failing to maintain the rule of law, the state had conditioned many poor communities to violent behavior."

"The government has made terrible misstatements," says Kronje at the SAIRR. "While there is truth that Zimbabweans do take jobs, the problem is not the Zimbabweans. The problem is that there are not enough jobs for everybody."

In the Johannesburg township of Soweto, police said they now know who the ringleaders of recent violence were and would soon move in to make arrests. Captain Mpande Khoza told the Sowetan newspaper that shops belonging to foreign nationals were specifically targeted, and the prime attraction seemed to be the money, property, and other goods taken.

Mathias – a Malawi native and gardener who would not give his last name for fear of retribution – says he has no idea what sparked the violence against foreigners. But in the current environment, he now trusts no one and says he has only a 25 percent chance of coming out of the current crisis without significant loss of property.

"My building is next to a township," Mathias says. "And when I have a friend over for tea, he looks around the room and sees a TV, a stereo, and he keeps that image in his head. So when a time like this comes along, and the police are doing nothing, he might say, 'Now's the time. Let's take what we can.' "

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