The death toll in a wave of attacks targeting foreigners around South Africa’s main city of Johannesburg has reportedly risen to 22, with an estimated 6,000 people seeking shelter in police stations, churches and community centres.
Police spokesperson Director Govindsamy Mariemuthoo was quoted in The Star newspaper as saying on Monday that the situation was calm in the townships of Alexandra, in northern Johannesburg, and Diepsloot, northwest of the city, where the attacks started last week.
However, the violence spread to Zandspruit, northwest of Johannesburg, and Tembisa, Primrose, Reiger Park and Thokoza, on the eastern perimeter of the city, as well as other working-class communities.
South African newspapers on Monday ran horrific images of people set alight by angry mobs who roamed townships during the weekend looking for foreigners and looting their shops and homes. In scenes reminiscent of anti-apartheid protest from the 1980s, the police fired teargas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.
In the Troyville area, just east of the central business district and historically a migrant enclave, shops were closed on Monday night and the usually busy streets were quiet. An estimated 2,000 people had taken refuge in the nearby Jeppe Street police station after violence at the weekend.
A police officer, who asked not to be named, told IRIN that he did not expect the violence to end anytime soon, and the station needed blankets and food to care for the foreign nationals – mainly Zimbabwean, Mozambican and Angolans – who were sheltering on the premises.
President Thabo Mbeki announced on Sunday that a panel had been set up to investigate the attacks, but the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), a constitutionally mandated watchdog, accused the government on Monday of failing to take the threat of xenophobia seriously.
SAHRC chief executive Tseliso Thipanyane was reported in newspapers as saying that the sudden outburst was the result of festering anger at poverty, a lack of resources, and the large influx of immigrants.
An estimated five million people from almost every country in Africa have migrated to South Africa; three million of these are thought to be Zimbabwean, but the Department of Home Affairs has no record of how many migrants might be undocumented.
They are perceived as taking jobs in an economy with an estimated unemployment rate of 40 percent, but in which there is also a serious skills shortage.
Not a new problem
The following chronology looks back at the problem of xenophobia since South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.
• The Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) threatens to take “physical action” if the government fails to respond to the perceived crisis of undocumented migrants in South Africa.
• IFP leader and Minister of Home Affairs Mangosutho Buthelezi says in his first speech to parliament: “If we as South Africans are going to compete for scarce resources with millions of aliens who are pouring into South Africa, then we can bid goodbye to our Reconstruction and Development Programme.”
• In December gangs of South Africans try to evict perceived “illegals” from Alexandra township, blaming them for increased crime, sexual attacks and unemployment. The campaign, lasting several weeks, is known as “Buyelekhaya” (Go back home).
• A report by the Southern African Bishops’ Conference concludes: “There is no doubt that there is a very high level of xenophobia in our country … One of the main problems is that a variety of people have been lumped together under the title of ‘illegal immigrants’, and the whole situation of demonising immigrants is feeding the xenophobia phenomenon.”
• Defence Minister Joe Modise links the issue of undocumented migration to increased crime in a newspaper interview.
• In a speech to parliament, Home Affairs Minister Buthelezi claims “illegal aliens” cost South African taxpayers “billions of rands” each year.
• A study co-authored by the Human Sciences Research Council and the Institute for Security Studies reports that 65 percent of South Africans support forced repatriation of undocumented migrants. White South Africans are found to be most hostile to migrants, with 93 percent expressing negative attitudes.
• Local hawkers in central Johannesburg attack their foreign counterparts. The chairperson of the Inner Johannesburg Hawkers Committee is quoted as saying: “We are prepared to push them out of the city, come what may. My group is not prepared to let our government inherit a garbage city because of these leeches.”
• A Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) survey of migrants in Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe shows that very few would wish to settle in South Africa. A related study of migrant entrepreneurs in Johannesburg finds that these street traders create an average of three jobs per business.
• Three non-South Africans are killed by a mob on a train travelling between Pretoria and Johannesburg in what is described as a xenophobic attack.
• In December The Roll Back Xenophobia Campaign is launched by a partnership of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), the National Consortium on Refugee Affairs and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
• The Department of Home Affairs reports that the majority of deportations are of Mozambicans (141,506) followed by Zimbabweans (28,548)
• A report by the SAHRC notes that xenophobia underpins police action against foreigners. People are apprehended for being “too dark” or “walking like a black foreigner”. Police also regularly destroy documents of black non-South Africans.
Undocumented migrants about to be deported from Lindela Repatriation Centre
• Sudanese refugee James Diop is seriously injured after being thrown from a train in Pretoria by a group of armed men. Kenyan Roy Ndeti and his room mate are shot in their home. Both incidents are described as xenophobic attacks.
• In Operation Crackdown, a joint police and army sweep, over 7,000 people are arrested on suspicion of being illegal immigrants. In contrast, only 14 people are arrested for serious crimes.
• A SAHRC report on the Lindela deportation centre, a holding facility for undocumented migrants, lists a series of abuses at the facility, including assault and the systematic denial of basic rights. The report notes that 20 percent of detainees claimed South African citizenship or that they were in the country legally.
• According to the 2001 census, out of South Africa’s population of 45 million, just under one million foreigners are legally resident in the country. However, the Department of Home Affairs estimates there are more than seven million undocumented migrants.
• Protests erupt at Lindela over claims of beatings and inmate deaths, coinciding with hearings into xenophobia by SAHRC and parliament’s portfolio committee on foreign affairs.
• Cape Town’s Somali community claim that 40 traders have been the victims of targeted killings between August and September.
• Somali-owned businesses in the informal settlement of Diepsloot, outside Johannesburg, are repeatedly torched.
• In March UNHCR notes its concern over the increase in the number of xenophobic attacks on Somalis. The Somali community claims 400 people have been killed in the past decade.
• In May more than 20 people are arrested after shops belonging to Somalis and other foreign nationals are torched during anti-government protests in Khutsong township, a small mining town about 50km southwest of Johannesburg.
• According to the International Organisation of Migration, 177,514 Zimbabweans deported from South Africa pass through their reception centre across the border in Beitbridge since its opening in May 2006.
• In March human rights organisations condemn a spate of xenophobic attacks around Pretoria that leave at least four people dead and hundreds homeless.