Can South Africa rein in its deep-rooted xenophobia?

Officials marched alongside thousands of South Africans at a protest against anti-foreign attacks on Thursday. The government is trying both persuasion and a heavy hand to stem the violence of recent weeks.

Themba Hadebe/AP
Asian nationals hold placards reading "no to xenophobia" during a march in Johannesburg, South Africa, Thursday, April 23, 2015, protesting against recent attacks on immigrants that killed seven people. The protesters walked through the center of Johannesburg passing neighborhoods that are home to many immigrants, a large number of whom come from other African countries.

They came from a wide cross-section of South African society, from the chanting, green-and-gold clad cadres of the ruling African National Congress to dozens of representatives of Johannesburg's large Chinese community clutching anti-xenophobia posters.

Several thousand people gathered in the city Thursday afternoon, wielding signs with messages like “more xen, less phobia” and “we are all foreigners somewhere.” Leading government officials and trade unionists toted messages of tolerance and solidarity.

As violence against foreigners has spread in the cities of Durban and Johannesburg over the past three weeks, these government officials have wrestled with a highly divisive question: how best to snuff out the attacks before they get any worse. For now, that response – whether it comes in the form of pleading or punching – has mostly focused on the immediate goal of stopping further violence, rather than tackling the long-term causes.

At one end of the spectrum of reactions are the nationwide vigils, rallies, and peace marches — many of them government-backed. At the other are muscular nighttime police raids, where arrests are few but the message is clear: We are stronger than you are.

Just 12 hours before the Johannesburg peace march, for instance, police stormed a workers hostel in the township of Alexandra, north of the city, in a massive raid designed to locate weapons and contraband. They came flanked by troop carriers that disgorged armed soldiers onto the streets outside.

Though these images look like flashbacks to the apartheid era, the reasons for the raids and marches are singularly modern — to root out perpetrators and unite against the wave of xenophobic lootings and murder that have rocked South Africa since late March.

“Our main focus is … ensuring we reclaim safety and security for South Africans as well as other inhabitants of our country,” Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega told reporters at another raid late Tuesday night outside the gates of a workers’ hostel near downtown Johannesburg. “We are ensuring that we reclaim the space [from xenophobic criminals].”  

Split approach

As the marchers wound through Hillbrow, an immigrant-dense neighborhood of high-rises near the downtown, passersby leaned from balconies, waving the flags of their home countries and cheering their support. And in a strip of Ethiopian restaurants in the city center, patrons abandoned plates of injera and lentils to watch.

“What the government is doing now is good — late but good,” says Kedir Yaseen, an Ethiopian shopkeeper who has lived in South Africa for 11 years, noting that many shops in the area had closed for three days the previous week over fears of attacks by looters. “I think they are recognizing that if they kill us here, we will kill them in our countries, too, and if they loot our shops here, we’ll close their businesses in our countries, too. No country can stand alone — South Africa needs Africa.”

Many activists have argued that the government’s reaction — whether it is slinging anti-xenophobia slogans or breaking down doors — has been far more of a defense than an offense against the violence.

“The South African government … has long acted in a reactive manner instead of putting in place long-term solutions to address the issue of xenophobia,” says Blessing Vava, a Zimbabwean human rights activist and pundit. “If we fail to deal with this now once and for all, such things will continue to happen here.”

For now, however, the government says its focus is on finding the perpetrators of the attacks, which have seen at least seven people killed and hundreds of business destroyed.

Overnight Thursday, as dozens of police officers streamed into the Alexandra workers hostel, they splashed through fetid water pooled in the cracks of the pavement and charged inside, roughly demanding that residents open their doors. As inhabitants emerged bleary-eyed, many wearing only boxer shorts, the police rifled through their belongings, searching for contraband. In the end, they left with only several cases of beer — confiscated because their owners didn’t have a permit to sell alcohol — and a few bags of toiletries thought to have been stolen from nearby foreign-owned shops.

With searchlights from a helicopter overhead slicing open the darkness, resident Sipho Sibuso stood watching the police slowly retreat.

“It’s OK what they’re doing here, I don’t mind,” he says. “But we have a real problem here, so many people from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi. They’re coming to take jobs, it’s not all right.”

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