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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Queen's Kitchen sells lunches to workers at a construction site in Johannesburg, May 20. Small businesses like this are increasingly being run by entrepreneurial immigrants in the run- up to the World Cup, but talk of xenophobic attacks on immigrants worry many.

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.

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.

IN PICTURES: Ready for the World Cup

“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."

Tiyani Tsakisi of Diepsloot, which is located nine miles northwest of Johannesburg, says he hates foreigners for stealing South Africa's beautiful girls and women. "The problem with foreigners is that they pay huge sums of money to our girls and women resulting in them refusing to fall in love with us," Mr. Tsakisi says.

Tshidiso Mokoena of Vereeniging says foreigners bring in drugs such as cocaine, mandrax, and marijuana, and commit robbery. "I have no problem living with foreigners provided they respect our elders. Now my main problem staying with our African brothers and sisters is that they impregnate our girls and dump them," says Mokeona.

Threats are real: officer

Duncan Breen, advocacy officer for the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA), says such threats are widespread, "real," and "they have to be prevented at all cost.”

The 2008 attacks were not an isolated incident, Mr. Breen says, citing at least 10 incidents of race violence that have occurred in 2010 in the Johannesburg area.

"Now, a week from the opening match of the World Cup, threats are mounting of further mass xenophobic violence once the event is over,” he says.

Xenophobic attacks against foreigners are based on “misplaced” and “primitive” stereotypes, says Marc Gbaffou, an Ivoirian national and president of African Diaspora Forum, an advocacy group.

“Prevention does not rest with ourselves," says Mr. Gbaffou. "Until the South African government engages in an education and political campaign against xenophobia, and fully deconstructs the scape-goating process when confronted to residents' frustrations, we believe the threat remains very high."

Zimbabweans feel they have no choice

Many South Africans are of the mind-set that violence against foreigners will force them home, says Luke Zunga of the Global Zimbabwe Forum, which has 7 million members living in worldwide diaspora. That feeling is grossly misplaced, he argues.

"Zimbabweans are not in South Africa by choice; many never dreamed of coming to South Africa,” says Mr. Zunga. “They are forced out of their country by politics, which led to economic meltdown.”

Local township councilors are under pressure for their failure to deliver basic services such as water, electricity, and trash pickup, so they often fan the xenophobic threats as a diversion, Zunga says. "Basically xenophobia is caused by the [competition] for jobs and space, particularly in poor areas. We appeal to South Africans not to do this, but let’s work together," he says.

Mohamad Radi Gruer, an Ethiopian shopkeeper who arrived just two months ago to run a shop in Diepsloot, says he’s praying that nothing comes of the threats.

“People are telling me, ‘All foreigners will go out,’ ” he says, standing in a neatly arranged shop full of corn meal, oil, and other staples. He was robbed a month ago, and he knows a Somali shopkeeper who was also robbed and then shot by the perpetrators.

“If I was alone, I could just run away,” says Mr. Gruer. “But I’m married. My wife is seven months pregnant. Maybe she gets her baby in July, during World Cup. So now, I’m just praying to God. Praying to God.”

IN PICTURES: Ready for the World Cup


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