By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 19, 2008
JOHANNESBURG, May 18 -- Gangs of men armed with guns, clubs and threats have chased thousands of Zimbabweans and other foreigners from their homes in this nation's poor townships over the past week, leaving at least 12 people dead and scores injured, according to news reports.
The nighttime rampages have turned police stations in several townships in the Johannesburg area into virtual refugee camps, with makeshift tents, portable toilets and clusters of terrified people, many displaying wounds from the attacks.
Many have vowed never to return to their looted houses but have few options when their own nations are experiencing a dearth of economic opportunities, or, in the case of Zimbabwe, a devastating political crisis and inflation that has topped 165,000 percent.
"I'm not going back to Zimbabwe," said Patricia Sibanda, 38, a widow who, along with her 15-year-old daughter, was among more than 1,000 victims camped out in the police station in the township of Alexandra, where the attacks began May 11. "There's no food in Zimbabwe. There's no everything."
The attacks have embarrassed many South Africans, including prominent members of the ruling African National Congress, whose own leadership depended on the hospitality of its neighbors during decades in exile before the fall of apartheid in 1994. An estimated 3 million people, most from Zimbabwe, have come to South Africa since then.
Zimbabwean Tom Matayo, 34, who was chased from his home in Alexandra, said he had heard of South Africans living in his native region, Matabeleland, while fighting apartheid. He fled his home Monday night as the attacks spread, leaving behind his South African wife, their three children and his tuberculosis medicine.
"Now we are here, they chase us away. It's unfair," said Matayo, a security guard who has lived in Alexandra for 10 years. "They don't remember because they are living all right."
Fourteen years after the end of apartheid, many townships remain deeply impoverished with few jobs, tiny metal shacks for homes and high rates of AIDS and other diseases. South African residents complain bitterly that foreigners have moved into many of the government-built concrete homes in recent years and are undermining wages, contributing to high crime rates and establishing relationships with South African women.
The townships also have been swollen by millions of rural South Africans coming in search of opportunity closer to economically vibrant urban centers. In several instances, according to news reports, South Africans from relatively small ethnic groups have been attacked along with foreigners.
The violence began in Alexandra, which has an estimated 500,000 people crammed into a three-square-mile cityscape dominated by small homes and shacks. It has since spread to other townships in Johannesburg and near Cape Town. An official told the Associated Press that 12 people have died in the violence and that 200 have been arrested.
Despite official condemnations -- the Alexandra police station has received a succession of high-profile visits by political, religious and government leaders -- the effort to drive out foreigners appears to enjoy widespread support among township residents.
South African house builder Albert Ramaite, 44, who supports a wife and five children, said he has not had steady work in more than three years. While he still holds out for a daily wage of about $20, many Zimbabweans will work for less than half that amount.
"Every day, I wake up and say, what am I going to do? What am I going to eat?" said Ramaite, who had skipped both breakfast and lunch that day.
Ramaite criticized the violence but said the foreigners must leave Alexandra. He suggested that the government build new townships to accommodate those who do not want to return to their home countries.
Formally relocating those chased from their homes would not necessarily ease the sense of frustration felt by many South Africans as they wait years for the arrival of modern housing and other amenities they expected soon after the end of apartheid.
"Once you give them houses or whatever, we'll be creating a big war," said Thomas Sithole, a member of the Alexandra Community Police Forum, a residents' group. "The question will be, 'Why are you giving them houses?' "
Yet many immigrants say they have lived peacefully here for many years.
Sibonisiwe Moyo, 23, said she came to Alexandra from Zimbabwe in 2004 and was living happily with her husband and their 4-month-old son.
They had few problems until a mob came to their home Sunday night. When her husband went outside to investigate while carrying their son, the boy was struck with a rock hurled by an attacker. Moyo's husband suffered wounds on his neck and abdomen.
She recalled the men shouting, "Zimbabweans must go back home!"
The gang looted their home, taking a refrigerator, radio, DVD player and clothes. Clad in the same blouse and dark skirt that she was wearing that night, Moyo was looking for a way to return to Zimbabwe.
"It's not good. People have guns," she said with a shrug. "I must go."