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."
Despite its wrenching poverty, South Africa is among Africa's richest countries and a magnet for immigrants, who number 3 million to 5 million. They have come as mineworkers, refugees from conflicts and, in the case of millions of Zimbabweans, illegal immigrants escaping economic ruin at home.
Most of those killed in May were Zimbabwean and Mozambican, but by some accounts as many as one-third were South African.
The attacks prompted soul-searching in a nation whose liberation leaders were given refuge throughout Africa during the apartheid era. Many South Africans criticized the government as failing to help the downtrodden, who view immigrants as competition for jobs. Others saw the violence as a symbol of ousted president Thabo Mbeki's failed strategy with Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, which they say led to an influx of immigrants from that country.
Some, including Mbeki and ANC leader Jacob Zuma, said the brutality was not xenophobic -- as it has been widely labeled -- but rather, as Zuma put it, "thuggery and criminality."
But surveys over the past decade by the Southern African Migration Project have found that hostility toward outsiders is higher in South Africa than in most nations where comparable data exist. In a recent report, the project said warnings by researchers and elected officials about the potential for violence were mostly ignored, leading to a "perfect xenophobic storm" this year.
In a May report, a parliamentary task force called for a revival of a defunct anti-xenophobia campaign and suggested a theme "along the lines of 'We are all Africans.' " The team said last month that it would evaluate refugee reintegration. Parliamentary spokesmen did not respond to two requests for information about the outcome of the evaluation.
This week, after the closure of most of the camps, the Department of Home Affairs held a meeting with civic and government groups to discuss xenophobia, an issue the department has tried to tackle before.
"Clearly, it hasn't been enough. Maybe it hasn't communicated the right messages," said Siobhan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Critics say the response has been spotty at best.
"It's not high on the agenda of issues that I see the leadership dealing with," said Shadrack Gutto, director of the center for African renaissance studies at the University of South Africa. "And it ought to be very high on the agenda."
Most of the 38,000 immigrants displaced during the attacks have returned to their countries or to South African communities, said UNHCR spokesman Yusuf Hassan. As of Oct. 3, more than 4,300 had accepted U.N. grants of $100 to $300, a sum that some refugees say is too little to rent a new home.
In interviews, many of the Akasia camp residents said the United Nations should resettle them in a third country. Hassan said that could happen only on a case-by-case basis, and he noted that more than 100,000 legal refugees and asylum seekers live in South Africa without major problems.
That is of little comfort to the immigrants who stayed at the campground this week after the tents were ripped down and the water supply cut off.
As the sun lowered, they gathered under a tree and passed around newspaper clippings.
" 'More Somalis killed,' "said Joel Naluwairo, 26, of Uganda, reading headlines aloud. " 'Warning letters given. Foreigners told to close up shop.' This is eighth of September. Western Cape."
Everyone had stories of being attacked, held up and scorned over the years. Everyone had tales of fleeing in terror from knife-wielding mobs in May.
"They call us Absa Bank, because we keep the money" at home, said Abdullah Abbas, 32, the designated leader of the camp's Somalis, referring to a South African bank. He said he and his partners lost a store worth $40,000 to looters. "It is as if all the people are one voice. One person, he shoots you. All the other people laugh at you."
But the suspicion goes both ways. Yilmashwa Taye, the Ethiopians' leader, said he employed five South Africans at his shop outside Johannesburg. But he never kept them on the payroll for long.
"These guys, they don't want to work. They are planning how they can arrive to steal," said Taye, 38, adding that he fled political persecution in his homeland six years ago. "I don't trust them."
Rage prayed often and offered words of hope to others at the camp, Abbas said. But Rage became stressed by the thought of his hungry family in Somalia. He decided he needed to get back to work in the township, Abbas said.
Abbas had no proof that Rage was killed because he was a foreigner. But he quoted witnesses saying the shooter asked for no money. The people around reportedly just shouted: "Leave this country."