After South Africa's World Cup, xenophobic threats on the rise

South Africa hosted a successful World Cup, but now many citizens are stepping up threats against migrant workers from other African countries. Will there be a repeat of deadly riots of 2008? One employer is building an 'asylum.'

Jerome Delay/AP
South African soldiers check the documents of residents of the Diepsloot township north of Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday. Police and the army have deployed because of growing rumors of possible rise in xenophobic violence after Sunday's World Cup Soccer final.

Jim Brown, an engineer in the southern-Cape town of Kynsna, South Africa, is adamant.

"Absolutely, the threats are real," he says, referring to concerns that the sort of xenophobic violence that killed scores and displaced tens of thousands in 2008 could start again – and soon. "I started getting warnings about three months ago, and during the World Cup, my guys were told to expect action by the last weekend of the tournament," says Brown, who now operates a renovation and construction business from the industrial area of town.

"It's hard to say who's behind it, but it does seem to be very organized. Even the security guards around here have been warning foreigners that trouble is coming," he says.

During the World Cup, the office that speaks for antiapartheid icon Nelson Mandela raised concern about xenophobic attacks. "The Nelson Mandela Foundation is concerned about rumors surfacing that there are negative sentiments arising toward non-nationals in South Africa.

"We have seen South Africans unite around a common support for African teams during the Fifa World Cup. We hope that this will lead to greater appreciation by South Africans of our place on this continent and that we will show greater solidarity with non-nationals. As Nelson Mandela once said: 'We cannot blame other people for our troubles.' We are not victims to the influx of foreign people into South Africa."

The South African government has voiced concern, but insists the rumors are unsubstantiated and the threat is being overblown. “There is fear and anxiety [that] is being peddled by people, and the problem with such rumors is that they are dangerous,” said South African Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa.

Building an 'asylum'

But Mr. Brown isn't taking any chances.

"I've had to strip all the shelving, to make space for a flat for my foreman and his wife," he explains. The hurried construction, complete with living room, bathroom, bedroom, and kitchenette, cost him 16, 000 rand ($2,125). Although carpet still has to be laid, it was ready for occupation just in time.

Peter, the Malawian occupant of the flat, calls it "my asylum."

"They said they'll kill me, because they want our jobs," he explains. "Now I have to live here, until I hear from up there [in one of the townships near Knysna] that it is safe to go back."

He says that a Somali-owned shop in the township was looted the night before. A Zimbabwean who works as a bartender in town had described the same shop the day before the attack, saying that the shopkeeper had barred the doors and was selling only through the window.

The Garden Route, as this part of the southern Cape coast is called, did not escape the wave of xenophobic murders of the last few years. Residents are skeptical of statements from police that these are mere rumors. While previous flare-ups were tamped down relatively quickly, Brown is not convinced it will blow over as quick this time around.

In 2008, he flew another Malawian employee to Blantyre because he was too afraid to travel by road via Johannesburg. He returned, but has since fled again, with his family.

How sympathetic are the police?

Brown says that in his experience, the police have become a lot more professional and competent in dealing with xenophobic attacks since then. However, he says he cannot shake the impression that the police are "not that sympathetic."

"They don't want to protect us," says the Zimbabwean barman. He has also been told to clear out of the area, because locals want his job.

Although criminals exploit the situation, and competing shopkeepers aren't exactly heartbroken to see foreign competition removed, the root of the problem is employment, Brown believes. He says the key lies in the education and work ethic of foreign laborers.

"We used to have the same problem between local workers and Xhosas from the Eastern Cape," he says. "The locals were on the bottle all weekend, while the Xhosas who came into town were lean, mean, and hungry. They worked hard and got most of the jobs; there was a lot of enmity between the locals and the migrants.

"We're now seeing the same thing with foreigners. They come here from Zimbabwe or Malawi with a different attitude to work," says Brown. "They also need to be trained, just like the locals, but they want to learn and to improve their skills. Instead of drinking their wages away, you see them after a few weeks riding a bicycle, while the locals are forever walking everywhere. A year later, they have an old car. They have ambition, and all of them dream of earning a position of responsibility," he says.

Foreigners desire to work hard irks locals

Peter agrees. "Where I come from, we know you have to work to provide for your family. Even if that means waking up early, and coming home late," he says. "These other guys, they don't want to work, so we get the jobs."

He agrees that simple criminality is also a motivation for this kind of violence. "They just want to take other people's stuff, you know?"

When Brown drives along the main road to the industrial area, where unemployed laborers wait in the hope of finding short-term work, the foreigners are on the left-hand side, and the local Xhosas on the right.

"It's always been like that. They're separated. And it sometimes happens that one of the Xhosas will yell at me, 'Hey you, where's my job?'" He pauses, with a frown on his face. "Well, that way he'll never get one."

Peter does not know how long he will have to live in the make-shift flat in the corner of the cold factory. "I don't want to live here. It's better to live in the community, where we can talk and share ideas, than to live here, alone, with nobody around. But what can I do when they say they will kill me?"

---- Names have been changed or omitted at the request of interviewees, who fear reprisals.

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