By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
RAMAPHOSA INFORMAL SETTLEMENT, South Africa -- This was the kind of place that was not supposed to exist in the new South Africa. All black. All poor. Dense, squalid, dirty, angry -- with charred patches of earth where men once stood.
The violence that flared here, and in communities like it all over the Johannesburg area during two weeks of mob attacks that have left at least 56 people dead, has carried echoes of this nation's notorious past. But the rage is not old. It is new, born of the broken dreams of South Africa's post-apartheid era.
As a black business elite has grown and traditional townships such as Soweto have edged into the middle class, destitute squatter camps such as the Ramaphosa Informal Settlement have proliferated, swelling with millions of new arrivals -- many from beyond South Africa's porous borders. These places became crucibles of poverty and, it is now clear, hatred.
Here at the bottom of the nation's notoriously rigid social hierarchy, poor, black South Africans complain they are falling behind Zimbabweans and Mozambicans, who always seemed to get the best jobs, the nicest houses, the most desirable women.
"I'm so tired of this place," said David Maupi, 35, a lean, calloused man who has failed to find steady work after years of searching. "I don't have food. I don't have a job. I've got a wife and two children. I want to work."
Economic strain alone does not explain the extent or the brutality of the recent attacks, in which tens of thousands of people, most wanting nothing more than a steady job and a better future for their children, have been chased away by spears, guns, planks of wood, lengths of pipe and worse.
But the ferocity of the violence has reminded South Africa of how desperate these forgotten places have become amid massive job losses, rising food prices and rampant crime. Here, the nation's legacy of ethnic rivalry gradually hardened into widespread dislike of foreigners, who were seen as rivals and regarded as inferior "Makwerekwere" -- a derogatory term used for immigrants from elsewhere in Africa.
This toxic combination first caught fire in the tin shacks of Alexandra township, one of the nation's densest and most crime-ridden. In a matter of days, the violence spread across the city, the region, the nation.
"Never since the birth of our democracy have we witnessed such callousness," President Thabo Mbeki said in a nationally televised address Sunday night. "We must accept the events of the past two weeks as an absolute disgrace."
Authorities have been investigating the possibility that the attacks were organized, but no concrete evidence has been publicly presented. Extensive interviews among both victims and supporters of the attacks suggest they may have been organic, with news of violence in one area inspiring mobs in others, especially as it became clear that the assaults were successful in pushing immigrants out. At least 10,000 Mozambicans have returned to that nation, which has declared a national state of emergency.
Outside the ruined home of a Mozambican immigrant here in Ramaphosa, a group of young South African men lingered on a recent day along a street covered with broken glass, bits of garbage and the black, sooty remains of fire. All were unemployed, and though some expressed reservations about the viciousness of the attacks, none seemed to regret the exodus of foreigners.
"Maybe if they leave, we'll get jobs," said Gezani Velly Makolele, 26, a thin, dour man who survives by taking odd jobs fixing cars but who has not had steady work since moving here in 2002.
"They use witchcraft to get jobs," Makolele added. It "helps the white people to like them more."
Even the few men here with steady paychecks, such as factory worker Jan Mahlaba, 33, complain that immigrants undercut their wages, or contribute to South Africa's high rate of violent crime.
"I'm happy they are being killed because their lives are full of crime," Mahlaba said.
The owner of the house that had been destroyed, Alberto Jossias Chivetlhe, 53, has taken refuge on the lawn outside a nearby police station, where hundreds of victims of the attacks have gathered.
He said he had come to this area first in 1972, to work in a nearby mine, then settled permanently in 1984, eventually gaining South African citizenship. That made him eligible for government housing, which was made of concrete blocks rather than the metal sheeting common in Ramaphosa. His home also had a concrete latrine with a toilet and a sink -- rare luxuries here.
Chivetlhe added on several rooms, a small shop, a telephone kiosk and a hair salon. He was living here with his wife and three children when a mob of men attacked May 18.
He recalled the men screaming as they ripped open the roof, saying, "How can Shangaans" -- the ethnic group of most of the Mozambicans here -- "have houses when we as citizens don't have houses!"
Chivetlhe, a former schoolteacher with a round, leathery face, has since sent his family to Mozambique, but his children don't speak Portuguese, the main language there, and he worries that their schooling will be affected. He expressed little sympathy for the frustrations of unemployed South Africans.
"We come fully skilled," he said. "We are good carpenters. We are good bricklayers. It's different than South Africans because South Africans need practice first."
Alfredo Tembe Bila, a Mozambican butcher who was chased out of his home in Ramaphosa along with his wife and 6-year-old son, said the men who attacked them carried shotguns and machetes. One said, "Let's kill that dog. He's a Shangaan."
"They are saying we are stealing their women, we are stealing their jobs, we are stealing their houses," said Bila, 38, who came here 14 years ago and said he's never done any of those things. "They don't want to look for a job because they don't want to work for less money."
Though the situation in Ramaphosa has calmed, there are signs of the new order taking hold. Men and women are scavenging leftover metal sheeting to build homes. One 29-year-old man, who declined to give his name, said a friend in Ramaphosa called to invite him to take over the lot of an immigrant who was chased away. The man quickly sank several logs into the ground and fastened sheets of wood between them.
At Chivetlhe's house, once one of the nicest in Ramaphosa, a South African family moved in the week after he left, but was evicted by the police, neighbors said.
Whoever gets to stay in the house will have to do extensive cleaning and repair. The windows are broken. The bedroom has a charred bed frame and a burned blanket and pillow; the heat blackened the walls and peeled the plastic laminate from the door.
That didn't stop Rosina Kaibane, 30, a South African hairdresser, from occupying Chivetlhe's front yard, where she was braiding the hair of a customer. Kaibane said her salon was burned in the violence -- it was next to a home owned by an immigrant -- and she needed a new place to work.
Chivetlhe has not given up hope of returning, but the men gathered outside his house made clear that he will not get the chance.
"It will never happen," Mahlaba said. "We're still going to do the same thing."
A friend, Jram Motseatsea, 30, added, "If he wants to die, he can come back."