South Africa's president calls attacks on immigrants shameful

President Mbeki says end 'attacks against Africans' and welcome them back home. But a police raid on a transit camp sends another message.

Scott Baldauf
Rubber bullets: Leftover cartridges after police raided an immigrant camp.
Scott Baldauf
In Limbo: Lukmaan Abdulla, a young Somali, fled to South Africa two months ago when warlords came to recruit him as a soldier. Now he's stuck in a refugee camp.

More than three weeks after beginning, South Africa's xenophobic attacks continue as the nation's leaders urge communities to begin bringing African immigrants from other countries back into their communities.

Just days after a Mozambican man was burnt alive in the township of Atteridgeville, and police raided a camp near the nation's capital, swinging clubs and firing rubber bullets and injuring dozens of the nearly 1,500 Somalis, Ethiopians, and Congolese inside, President Thabo Mbeki made a renewed appeal for the violence to stop. More than 62 have died since the violence began.

Speaking at a ceremony commemorating Youth Day on Monday, Mr. Mbeki praised the past efforts of South African youth in the liberation struggle that ended the racist system of apartheid. But, he added, "at the same time, we must admit that all of us have been humiliated and shamed by the small number of young people who took it upon themselves to lead criminal attacks against the Africans living among us."

Kgalema Motlanthe, the ruling African National Congress party's No. 2, reinforced the message at a speech in Soweto: "The current situations suggest that we are sinking into a flood."

While few predicted the anti-immigrant attacks, the warning signs have been present for years. Attacks against Somali shopkeepers alone have led to hundreds of deaths in sporadic violence since 1994, say Somali groups. The government doesn't track attacks based on national origin.

Anger about the government's inability to create jobs or to deliver electricity or drinking water to burgeoning townships has spilled over into open protests, complete with roadblocks, burning tires, and residents wielding clubs. Now, angry citizens have taken their frustrations out those who arrived in South Africa to make a little money, and succeeded.

"We're talking about the poorest of the [South African] poor, and there was no pressure valve, and so when the pressure grew, and you lit a match, the whole thing blew," says Adrian Hadland, director of democracy and governance programs at the Human Sciences Research Council. Dr. Hadland recently conducted focus groups in townships for a report for the government on the causes of and solutions for xenophobic attacks.

In the focus groups, "People describe themselves as being in a state of siege. Food is more expensive. Housing is more expensive. Jobs are harder to find. You would already be looking for a scapegoat, and then you have migrants arriving, most of them better educated, some of them with access to money," he says. The violence is "nothing new, but what is new is how the violence spread so rapidly, and nationally."

Tito Mboweni, the Reserve Bank Governor, said earlier this month that poor South Africans spend half of their income on food alone. "Food and petrol prices are the main contributors to inflation, but in recent months, more generalized price pressures have emerged as well," said Mr. Mboweni.

While government officials like President Mbeki are urging citizens to allow the migrants to return, Hadland says that few South Africans want reintegration to begin until the government meets some of their demands for better service and less corruption.

Judging from the mood at a transit camp for migrants north of Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called, few migrants would return to their former homes and businesses anyway without assurances for their safety.

On Saturday, violent clashes between camp dwellers – most of them Somalis, Ethiopians, Eritreans, and Congolese – and local police left dozens injured when police used clubs and fired rubber bullets to bring a restive crowd under control. Tensions rose, camp dwellers say, after a policeman demanded cigarette from a camp dweller, and when he was refused, he insisted on searching the boy for drugs.

More police were called in to search the camp for weapons, but when police entered a tent that had been designated as a mosque, camp dwellers pushed them out, and the violence began. Camp dwellers say that three persons – one Ethiopian and two Somalis – were killed during the Saturday raid, but pol ice took away their bodies. Police confirm only that some of the camp dwellers were injured.

"I am encouraged to see the situation is under control," Tshwane Executive Mayor Gwen Ramokgopa told a community meeting after the police raid. She said the raid occurred after a female police officer was "held hostage" within the camp, a charge the camp dwellers deny.

"For 15 years, Somalis have been killed in robberies, their shops burnt, but the government did nothing," says Abdul Abbas, a spokesman for the Somali community in the camp. "Then when the xenophobic attacks started, they did nothing again. They saved our lives, but they did nothing to save our shops. Then they bring us here, and now the police are fighting us. We are fed up."

Yitbarak, a young Somali whose shop in a Johannesburg township was burned by angry mobs 23 days ago, says that conditions in the camp are abysmal, that it's not safe to leave. "The government says they are going to protect us, but it is the police who are attacking us," he says. "The police tell us, 'Go home, this is not your country. This is South Africa.' "

Elmi Hissa, an elderly Somali shopkeeper, says that she has been robbed more times than she can remember in the past 10 years, and each time moved to a different community – from Johannesburg to Durban to Cape Town to Kimberly to Pretoria – in the hopes that the local people would accept her once they got to know her.

"For 10 years I was patient, but now I'm tired," she sighs.

"You struggle hard, you work hard, and after that people take it from you. You go to police and they say, why don't you go to your own country?" The reason she doesn't go back, she says, is that there's a war in Somalia that has already claimed seven of her children. "Sometimes I think until I cry," she says. "South Africa is not the place to stay anymore. You can't stay with people who don't want you."

Lukmaan Abdullah, a young Somali clothing salesman, fled Somalia just two months ago, when warlords came to take him as a soldier. His parents sold the house they were living in in order to pay for his transportation to South Africa, hoping the young man would be able to make enough money to help the family survive.

The day he arrived, however, the xenophobic attacks began, and Mr. Abdullah has spent the past 23 days in this camp. "When I left Somalia, the rockets were hitting the market where I worked. When I came here, the xenophobic attacks had just started. If I go back now, there will be no other way but to work with the warlords. They will force me, without a doubt."

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