Friday, October 13, 2006

Xenophobia in South Africa

Sharmeen Obaid Chinnoy:

As dawn breaks over Zimbabwe, Douglas Foster and five other men crouch behind a fence, waiting for a South African border police patrol to pass. Shivering in the cold September rain they wriggle their way through three sets of fences to enter South Africa illegally. Desperate to escape the spiralling poverty in Zimbabwe, they risk everything to join millions of other African immigrants in one of the continent's most economically prosperous nations.

No one knows how many illegal immigrants there are in South Africa. A recent census suggested 1.1 million, but the real figure is almost certainly far higher. They come from all over the continent - Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo - but their growing numbers are causing a major backlash, leading to what some describe as a second apartheid. Xenophobia is on the rise and in the past three months more than 32 Somalis have been killed.

Poor South Africans say that they are competing for resources with illegal immigrants. In Diepsloot, a sprawling, densely populated township of 120,000 people north of Johannesburg, Somali-owned businesses have been torched and looted several times this year. Two months ago, Johannes Seloane of the South African Business Forum of Diepsloot wrote a letter to the Somali shopkeepers asking them to leave immediately or face consequences. For now, most of them have chosen to stay.

"I cannot stop my people from resorting to violence," he said. "It's been two months now and they haven't left. My people are getting tired of them."

Hajir Omar, a Somali who came to Johannesburg in 1994 and now owns a grocery store in Diepsloot is scared of what may happen. He said: "I left the fighting in Somalia but now I'm facing the same thing here in South Africa. What do I do? I have nowhere to go."

Not far from his shop a crowd gathered to sing protest songs. Neda Jiyane, a 30-year-old mother of two children, said: "South Africa is for South Africans only. We fought for this South Africa, now it is for us, the freedom is for us and not for illegals." Another woman used a loudspeaker to urge the crowd to go from shack to shack. "Demand to see their passports and identification documents, if they don't have them, destroy their shacks," she said.

As Channel 4's Unreported World reveals in "South Africa: The New Apartheid", illegal immigrants are being increasingly blamed for everything, from the high crime rates to soaring unemployment. In Hillbrow in Johannesburg, one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in South Africa, Senior Superintendent Koos Van Rhyn said: "Zimbabweans deal in stolen goods and they are very much involved in street robberies." Twice a week, his team rounds up suspected drug dealers and robbers, almost all of them illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe or Nigeria. "It's easy for them to hide," says Mr Van Rhyn. "We don't have their names, finger prints or photographs."

Five hours north of Johannesburg near the border with Zimbabwe, white farmers have taken things into their own hands. They believe the local police are corrupt and incapable of arresting the hundreds of Zimbabweans who cross into the country illegally every day, so they do it themselves. Annette Kennealy, an artist and farmer's wife, said Zimbabweans are responsible for a rise in crime. "Farm murders are probably the biggest thing and I think because they have nothing to lose they've become easy to co-opt into doing these things."

SOUTH AFRICA: Fleeing war, Somalis are targets of violence in adopted home

Police corruption in Joburg: new claims

Somalis live in fear in South Africa

Lives shattered along with shops


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