JOHANNESBURG, 27 May 2010 – South Africa is hosting the continent’s first soccer World Cup but the mounting anticipation is not drowning out a vicious whispering campaign calling for the expulsion of foreign nationals within hours of the curtain going down on football’s biggest jamboree.
The local media has been awash with anecdotal stories of conspiracies brewing at taxi ranks, shebeens and markets to bring a pogrom against foreign African nationals, who are blamed for taking jobs and diverting government services, while NGOs concerned with the plight of refugees and migrants are becoming more worried as 12 July – the day after the final game – draws near.
Jacob Dlamini, a columnist for Business Day, a local newspaper, recounted an incident in Katlehong, the Johannesburg township where he grew-up, in a 27 May article. “I overheard three local women taunting a Mozambican man: ‘Make sure you are packed and ready to go by July 12’, they said. ‘But you know some of your sisters will starve if I am expelled from here’, he answered. ‘We don’t care’, said the women.”
Xenophobia, a constant companion of post-apartheid South Africa, found its most deadly expression in May 2008 after an incident in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra ignited violence against foreigners across the country, resulting in scores of deaths and the displacement of more than 100,000 people.
Afterwards, early warning systems were set up to ensure a quick response to xenophobic violence, but Jacques Kamanda, general secretary of the Coordinating Body of Refugee Communities, told IRIN these were not functioning.
Since 2008, “no-one has been convicted for the attacks”, he said, and a city councillor from the ruling African National Congress, on trial in the port city of Durban for allegedly leading a mob that forced two men – one from Zimbabwe and the other from Tanzania – to jump to their deaths from a block of flats, “is still a free man”. A third man survived the fall.
Kamanda, originally from the war torn Democratic Republic of Congo, said the government should take a stand against xenophobia. “We need the [South African] government to stand up and say who we are and why we are here, but they say nothing.”
There were widespread “reports by foreign nationals around the country that they are being threatened with violence after the World Cup”, the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CORMSA) said in a statement issued on 11 May to commemorate the second anniversary of the 2008 xenophobic attacks.
“These threats are coming from many different people: neighbours, colleagues, taxi-drivers, passers-by on the street, but also from nurses, social workers and police officers. Worrying, too, is that some of those making the threats believe that they have the support of senior political leaders,” the statement said.
A wide band of xenophobia
Duncan Breen, an advocacy officer for CORMSA, told IRIN that on the one hand speculation of an outbreak of xenophobia risked becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, while on the other it was “irresponsible not to alert people to the possibility, so no one can say they did not see it coming”.
However, he said South Africa had a history of conspiracies that had not led to action, like the one that when former President Nelson Mandela left office, “whites would die like flies”.
A recent survey of 6,636 participants on the quality of life in Gauteng, the country’s richest province, by the Gauteng City Region Observatory (GCRO), a provincial government think-tank, in partnership with two of Johannesburg’s universities, found that the xenophobic streak running through South African society was not confined to poor and marginalised communities.
Prof David Everatt, the GCRO’s executive director, told local media that 73 percent of the participants with tertiary education thought “foreigners are taking benefits meant for South Africans”, while three-quarters of those without tertiary education believed this was an accurate assessment. Everatt commented: “If the attitudes of xenophobia remain … we have a problem.”
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]