Fear Amid Hostility in South Africa

[Map: Tent city near Pretoria, South Africa]
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 12, 2008

AKASIA, South Africa -- Mohammed Rage lived here among the dusty tents outside the nation's capital for one month. At 48, the Somali shopkeeper was considered an elder among hundreds of immigrants who sought refuge in this government-run encampment after brutal attacks against foreigners spread through South Africa's slums in the spring.

This week, a photo of Rage's dead body, splayed over splotches of blood on a white mortuary table, was offered by those he left behind as proof that they could not leave, even though the camp was being shut. He had returned to his looted shop in June, they said, and got shot in the chest.

"I am afraid that everywhere I go, I will be killed," said Rage's son, Abdullah Mohammed Rage, 24, clutching the photo as government-deployed security workers used crowbars to tear down nearby tents made of blankets and wooden planks. "In South Africa, there is no place safe."

Five months have passed since more than 60 people were killed in anti-foreigner beatings and burnings that shocked a nation that touts diversity. Thousands of immigrants moved to about 10 refugee-style camps that seemed incongruous in Africa's most developed country. In recent weeks, the government has torn most down, saying the neighborhoods are safe again.

But aid workers and immigrants who fled to this spot north of Pretoria -- mostly Somalis, Ethiopians and Congolese -- disagree. They say the camps' endurance and continued reports of violence underscore how little the South African government has done to tackle a long-standing hostility toward immigrants that reached a tipping point in the spring.

Although government leaders condemned the attacks and quickly set up camps, they have mostly left it to civic groups to distribute aid and grants to help the displaced get back on their feet. Some critics say the immigrants' plight has fallen to the wayside as the ruling African National Congress struggles with internal turmoil and courts voters in the townships that lashed out at immigrants.

Others say government leaders simply seem paralyzed by what a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which lent 2,000 tents, called a "sense of shame."

"There hasn't been a comprehensive investigation or commission of inquiry into the violence. . . . It appears that very little has changed," said Duncan Breen, an advocacy officer for the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, which went to court to try to keep the camps open until the government made a plan to reintegrate the displaced. "That actually leads all of us to worry that violence could break out again."

Simon Zwane, a spokesman for the provincial government, which ran six camps near Johannesburg and Pretoria that are now shuttered, said the government has held seminars to "encourage tolerance" in some communities.

Intermittent violence has continued against foreigners, particularly Somalis, many of whom are legal refugees and run shops in townships. On Oct. 3, a Somali woman and her three children were stabbed and bludgeoned to death in Eastern Cape province, prompting the United Nations' top human rights official, Navanethem Pillay, to condemn "a dangerous pattern of targeted attacks on foreigners."

As the Akasia camp was dismantled on a recent afternoon, the dirt lot began to resemble a junkyard, with mattresses and piles of clothing. The hundreds of immigrants there said they were not budging.

"People here have seen the worst of South Africa," said a Congolese woman with a baby strapped to her back. "It is better they kill us here than we go back and they kill us."

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