A series of brutal attacks has taken place in South Africa over the past couple of weeks, targeting mostly, but not exclusively, immigrants from other African countries. Most of these attacks have taken place in the KwaZulu-Natal province, but some here in Johannesburg too. These incidents have involved a large number of people and have so far resulted in at least seven fatalities. The closest of these attacks wasn't far south of my apartment. No one was killed, but bricks were thrown at fleeing shopkeepers whilst their shops were looted, and nearby cars and property were damaged. Although I stayed locked in my apartment, I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the sounds of the attack, the screams of anger and fear and pain.
I’m not South African. I know I don’t know the full story. But here’s what it seems has been going on.
Although there are some who say that peace was never fully restored after the 2008 spate of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, most are blaming incitement from the Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini, who gave a speech in Pongola, KwaZulu-Natal a couple of weeks ago in which he apparently described foreigners in the country as ‘lice’, and urged them to pack their bags and leave. This was a cue for several violent attacks on foreign nationals in the province, with many of the attackers operating under the excuse that, in a country where unemployment is at 24%, it’s unfair for foreign nationals to take the jobs that South Africans so desperately need. Despite the Zulu king later claiming that his words were taken out of context, and making a plea for peace, the violence escalated.
Many South Africans are upset and angered by the violence, which has prompted scores of anti-xenophobia marches, drives and vigils. Over 30,000 people are expected to march through Johannesburg to unite against xenophobia on Thursday. The government, however, seems to be showing little leadership on the matter; they certainly seem to be doing a poor job of holding those in positions of responsibility accountable for their inciting comments. Their response has been slow off the mark, and doesn't extend much past holding foreign nationals in refugee camps - although they have recently deployed troops to certain areas to support local police.
But the local police seem to be doing their best to cover up the problem. During the attacks here, the police released statements claiming that nothing was going on, and that shopkeepers were fleeing the area to avoid raids on illegal goods, despite videos having been uploaded onto YouTube of the violence. Sickeningly, the xenophobic murder of Mozambican Emmanual Sithole in Alexandra, which was documented by photojournalist James Oatway, was explained by the police as “a robbery gone wrong.”
Although fresh reports of xenophobic incidents are still appearing, things seem to have settled lately. I am praying that this is the end of the attacks, and that those living in South Africa, the majority of whom are incredibly kind and generous people, can live in peace.