As South Africa prepared to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday, police stormed a refugee camp on Thursday in southern Johannesburg to release four security guards held hostage by foreign nationals displaced by the recent xenophobic violence.
The tented “safety camp” in Johannesburg’s Glenanda suburb houses about 2,000 people from 16 African countries and was established in the wake of widespread xenophobic attacks that killed more than 60 people, injured hundreds more and displaced tens of thousands in May this year.
The residents have voluntarily divided the camp into sections according to nationality; people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, numbering about 700 people, are the dominant group.
Police spokesman Superintendent Lungelo Dlamini said that at about 9 a.m. on 17 July, police entered the camp to rescue four guards working for a private security company, contracted by local government to provide security, and fired rubber bullets in response to stones being thrown at them. Three women and seven men were arrested for public violence.
Thabo Masebe, spokesman for Gauteng local government, said that tensions rose on 16 July after “a group of people refused to be registered on a Home Affairs data base”.
On the following day, those refusing registration “disrupted the process” and then took four security guards hostage. The guards were subsequently released by the police action, Masebe said, and the camp was sealed off by police.
The Home Affairs department has begun issuing victims of xenophobic violence with special identity documents, regardless of their status, to lessen their vulnerability as foreign nationals. The identity documents are valid for six months.
Camp residents said through the two-metre high chain-link perimeter fence that they believed the registration process was part of a strategy to forcibly reintegrate them back into South African society.
Hussein Niyibigira, who fled Burundi in 1994, said South African nationals walking past the camp, which is close to a busy intersection, constantly taunted them, saying such things as: “If you leave here, it will be your last day, we will kill you.”
Richard Assante, who arrived illegally in South Africa from Ghana in 2006, said he had received a special identity document but was afraid to return to the camp as “people want to kill me because I got a card [identity document].”
He said most people in the camp were hoping to be resettled in either Canada or Australia, so they were rejecting both reintegration in South Africa and repatriation to their country of origin.
The shelters established for victims of xenophobia have a two-month timeframe, and if foreign nationals refuse either reintegration into South African society or repatriation to their home countries, “we could have a dilemma” Masebe said. “We cannot force people to go back to their home countries and we cannot establish permanent shelters for foreign nationals.”
Masebe said resettlement of the foreign nationals in the camps to a third country was not within the South African government’s ambit.
Deeper causes for the violence
South African President Thabo Mbeki told a rally in Pretoria on 3 July, held to commemorate those who died in the xenophobic violence: “I heard it said insistently that my people have turned, or become xenophobic … I wondered what the accusers knew about my people which I did not know.
“And this I must also say, none in our society has any right to encourage or incite xenophobia by trying to explain naked criminal activity by cloaking it in the garb of xenophobia.”
The Centre for Development and Enterprise, a South African policy think-tank, on 17 July called for a commission of inquiry into the xenophobic violence to answer numerous questions, such as the impact of corruption, the effects of the crisis in neighbouring Zimbabwe, the role of the media, and the government response to the attacks.
“The May violence was almost certainly much more complicated that it initially seemed,” the statement said. “Causes of the violence run deeper than an alleged extraordinary South African hatred of foreigners.”