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South Africa inflamed: Attacks on immigrants and the roots of unrest

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Elvis Yusuf knew exactly what had happened when the call came in on Sunday night. There’s been an attack, said a friend who lived just behind Shakara Motors, the car dealership where he worked.

When Mr. Yusuf reached the dealership the following morning, its stock of cars had been reduced to dozens of hollow metal husks. The dealership was one of hundreds of businesses looted since late last week, attacks carried out in the name of reclaiming South Africa from its migrants.

Foreigners are an easy target for a rage and helplessness that run much deeper in the lives of many poor South Africans, says Jean Pierre Misago, an expert on xenophobia and violent outsider exclusion.

Twenty-five years after the end of white rule, South Africa remains staggeringly unequal. Despite being the most developed country on the continent, half the population lives below the local poverty line of $80 a month. 

“People are jealous, people are hungry,” says Isaac Hlatshwayo, the security guard at Shakara, as he watches local beggars pry hunks of metal off the ashy car skeletons that still lined the road in front of the shop.

Johannesburg

For days, the warnings had been slowly snaking their way across the city, spread by text messages and whispered conversations. 

“NOTICE TO ALL FOREIGNERS IN SOUTH AFRICA,” read one message widely circulated on WhatsApp. “We are going to knock every company, houses, flats and squatter camps looking for you. Better pack your bags and go. This is a serious warning.”

“Attention All,” began another. “Tomorrow is the final phase of our strike. Make sure all the foreigners are swept away. … We want our country back.”

At home near a rambling district of used-car lots and corner stores east of downtown Johannesburg, Elvis Yusuf’s phone buzzed with these messages, forwarded by fellow immigrants and concerned friends. Until finally, on Sunday night, there came another.

It was a call from a friend who lived just behind Shakara Motors, the car dealership where Mr. Yusuf worked as a mechanic.

There’s been an attack, she said simply. He knew what that meant.

When Mr. Yusuf reached the dealership the following morning, its stock of cars had been reduced to dozens of hollow metal husks, slumped and twisted in piles of their own ash. The street around him lay in ruin. Metal grates covering nearby shopfronts had been peeled open like the lids of tin cans, their contents – broken beer bottles, burst tomatoes, punctured bags of fluffy maize flour – scattered on the road nearby. Giant hunks of charred brick lay in the negative space where neighboring buildings once stood.

The dealership was one of hundreds of businesses looted since late last week, as violence has crashed over South Africa’s largest city and its surrounds. So far, at least seven people have died and 423 have been arrested in connection with the attacks, which have purportedly targeted the city’s foreign-owned businesses.

But as with several earlier waves of anti-foreigner violence here, the attacks carried out this week in the name of reclaiming South Africa from its migrants have been exceptionally unfocused, with many South Africans counted among those killed, injured, and looted in attacks. Among the targets in the latest wave of violence, for instance, was a nongovernmental organization offering legal advice and assistance to low-paid casual laborers.

“Xenophobia is the match that lit the flames, but the fire is much bigger than that,” said Lenny Govender, a South African whose car dealership was also looted this week, as he peered through a mosaic of cracked glass into the gutted room where his office once stood.

Foreigners are an easy target for a rage and helplessness that run much deeper in the lives of many poor South Africans, says Jean Pierre Misago, a researcher at the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Twenty-five years after the end of white rule, indeed, South Africa remains staggeringly unequal. Despite being the most developed country on the continent, half the population lives below the local poverty line of $80 a month. The formal unemployment rate hovers near 30%, and jumps to more than 50% among people under 25.

Political scapegoating

In that context, Mr. Misago says, political leaders frequently use anti-foreign sentiment to steer blame away from their own governance failings. 

“It’s absolutely political scapegoating. There’s not enough space in public schools? Blame foreigners. There aren’t resources in our clinics? Blame foreigners. There are problems of drugs and prostitution and crime? Blame foreigners,” he says. “People feel disempowered in this country, and this is a way to claim that power back.”

The disempowerment at the heart of xenophobic violence here runs deep. Since the end of apartheid 25 years ago, the gap between South Africa’s rich and poor people has actually widened. And while there is no available data for this week’s attacks, the perpetrators of past waves of violence have been drawn almost exclusively from the squatter camps and decrepit worker hostels that line the fringes of South African society – places left largely untouched by the radical rebirth of Nelson Mandela’s “miracle” nation two decades ago.

“People are jealous, people are hungry,” says Isaac Hlatshwayo, the security guard at Shakara, as he watches local beggars pry hunks of metal off the ashy car skeletons that still lined the road in front of the shop on Thursday.

Like other migrants, Mr. Hlatshwayo, a Zimbabwean who now has South African citizenship, has lived through many earlier waves of violence here. In 2008, more than 60 people were killed and tens of thousands displaced by attacks around the country. And in the years since, outbreaks of violence have sparked and fizzled again and again, often drawing little attention outside the immediate communities where they occur.

“This is something happening almost every day in this country on some scale,” says Mr. Misago.

But this week, news of the violence has traversed the continent on social media. Protesters in both Nigeria and Zambia attacked South African chain stores there in retaliation for the violence, and the South African government announced that it would temporarily close its consulates in Nigeria for the safety of staff there. The government of Nigeria, meanwhile, announced that it would boycott the regional meeting of the World Economic Forum, which is taking place in Cape Town, South Africa, this week.

Recalling the ‘Mandela tax’

For Ezeh, another mechanic at Shakara, who asked to be identified only by a nickname for safety reasons, it’s easy to see why other Africans feel so betrayed by how migrants are treated here.

As a high school student in Jos, Nigeria, in the 1980s, he remembers, his headmaster gathered his school together and made an announcement.

Nigerian civil servants, he explained, were having a small percentage of their pay docked to provide assistance to the struggle against apartheid – a so-called Mandela tax. Now, students were being asked to get involved as well. 

“I worked that whole week to make the money to donate,” he says. “Our headmaster told us, ‘Our brothers are suffering. We have to help.’” 

But now, three decades later, as he surveyed the skeletal remains of two dozen cars all around him, that Pan-African solidarity seemed forgotten. “People don’t know their history, they don’t know where they’re coming from. They don’t realize these borders were created by colonial powers to separate us,” he says. 

On the road outside, small groups of men pried bumpers from the charred wreckage of cars, or gathered up knots of burnt wire to sell for a few dollars at nearby scrapyards. A few blocks down the road, people filtered in and out of the blackened husk of a restaurant. Its signboard, which read PRINCESS CAFÉ, was still plastered to the front wall, but the roof above it had collapsed, and inside was only a jumble of concrete and metal. 

Those inside picked quietly through the rubble, searching for anything that had been left behind.



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