South Africans Fear Backlash of Violence

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

RAMAPHOSA INFORMAL SETTLEMENT, South Africa, May 19 -- Gift Mahlakametsa, 33, leaned on a long, carved club on Monday and pointed to the brown mountain of mine waste that passes for a hillside in this grim patch of South Africa. Just beyond the ridge, he warned, Mozambicans were waiting for darkness, spears and guns at the ready.

"They want to pay revenge," Mahlakametsa said.

It was easy to see why. For nine days, attacks against foreigners have spread uncontrollably through Johannesburg's poorest areas, leaving at least 22 dead, hundreds injured and thousands homeless in the worst outbreak of township violence since the end of apartheid. At least two people have been seriously burned by their attackers, one fatally.

All over Ramaphosa, this ragged settlement of tin shacks and narrow, dusty alleyways, gangs have looted and demolished homes. Occupants have fled, or been beaten, or in several cases killed. Many of the survivors had come to South Africa in search of opportunity; now, they can be seen carrying their remaining possessions in plastic bags or loading them onto trucks bound for almost anywhere else.

Many fear that the worst is still ahead. On Monday, a police helicopter flew low in endless looping passes here. Officers with flak jackets and shotguns loaded with rubber rounds made occasional forays into Ramaphosa in armored vehicles. Residents braced themselves for the night as the setting sun turned orange, then brown amid the smoke of burning shacks and brush fires.

"We must fight," Mahlakametsa explained as he shifted his weight on his club, a traditional carved weapon that was heavy enough to break a man's arm. "We are trying to protect our wives, our children. . . . We are not sleeping. We are only waiting for any action."

The violence in this country began on May 11 in the notoriously crime-ridden township of Alexandra when Zimbabwean immigrants came under attack. Since then, the assaults have grown more terrible and widespread with almost every passing day. Police are stretched so thin that there are growing calls to mobilize the military to patrol not only townships and their poor outlying areas, known as informal settlements, but also downtown Johannesburg, which has not been spared.

Though police and aid groups say the violence has been mostly one-sided, with South Africans assaulting foreigners, residents of Ramaphosa said there have been counterattacks as well. They were expecting more. A gang of about 100 men -- carrying sharpened sticks, planks of wood, lengths of plastic pipe, machetes -- gathered not far from a cluster of destroyed homes Monday afternoon.

They were preparing to protect themselves, they said, from Mozambicans supposedly hiding on the hill of mine waste.

"They've burned our shacks here, and now they are going to rape our wives," said Petrus Masemola, 38, a security guard who pointed to some bent, charred sheet metal that he said had been his home.

The violence has been particularly shocking for a country that styles itself as the "Rainbow Nation" and takes pride in its record on democracy and human rights. Until recently, the country experienced a peacefulness rarely seen elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet the attacks have made plain that many of the poorest South Africans feel left behind in the post-apartheid era. While freedoms have expanded, many of the nation's largest employers have had to resort to massive layoffs. Soaring prices for food and gasoline have sharpened anger, as has the relative economic success of Zimbabwean and Mozambican immigrants.

"When you live in abject poverty, when you feel you are forgotten, then you cry out and you say, 'What does democracy mean to me?' when you still don't have a home," said Christopher Barends, a Lutheran minister tending to foreigners gathered in Reiger Park, a community adjacent to Ramaphosa. "The same people who have fought against apartheid, the same people who fought for liberation, they can't enjoy that."

The mobs in many cases went house by house in Ramaphosa, demanding to know the origins of those inside. Foreign-sounding accents often were tip-offs, residents said.

The rampages clearly have been effective. Those foreigners who had not yet left Ramaphosa were packing up their remaining things and plotting their escape on Monday.

Mozambican-born Paulos Cosa, a 32-year-old house builder, loaded a dresser and a few spare pieces of furniture onto the back of a pickup truck. All of the rest of his possessions, including a television, a generator and nearly $700 he had hidden beneath a mattress, were looted from his home over the weekend, he said.

"If I come back, these people are going to kill me," said Cosa, who has lived in South Africa since 1995.

As he loaded the truck, two men stood atop a nearby shack tearing away the roof, made of valuable sheet metal. One shouted in isiZulu, one of South Africa's most common languages: "Foreigners get out!"

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