Pretoria News, 29 March 2008

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Rebecca Marai was in her security guard uniform at work when her cellphone rang. Until the call, it had been a routine Monday of keeping an eye on shoppers at a Pretoria department store. Then the Zimbabwean-born South African citizen answered her phone. It was her neighbour. Marai's five-roomed Atteridgeville home of 14 years was about to be torched by a violent mob of fellow-South Africans and her neighbour did not know what to do. "Don't panic," the mother of four quickly instructed. Then she demanded the whereabouts of her children. That was Monday. The next night her three eldest children - Miriam, 20, Patience, 15, and Johnny, 10, - were re-united with their mother into a new reality at a makeshift shelter set up at a primary school in Atteridgeville. The three children, accustomed to their own bedrooms and family life, walked into a classroom overrun with sleeping bodies and salvaged goods to where Marai had carved out a space on the muddy linoleum floor. They stood silently. Their mother was too terrified to answer their wordless questions. Patience, a Grade 10 pupil who was born at a nearby hospital, eventually broke the near-catatonic silence. "I just feel like crying," she said, before her mother pulled her into a tight embrace. By Tuesday night, 400-odd people had fled a two week xenophobic rampage by gangs of South Africans who marched through Atteridgeville's informal settlements in search of foreign-born targets. The violence started on March 18 with looting, beatings, murders and the torching of properties in what appeared to be a series of planned attacks. By Monday, at least four people were dead. Chamunorna Kufondada, 38, a resident of the remote, poorly-serviced Brazzaville informal settlement, was one of them. On Monday night, he was severely beaten then dragged inside his shack and set alight. The black-on-black, African-on-African violence appeared to be as incomprehensible as the ferocity of the lynch-mob mentality for those who fled to the makeshift shelter at Mangena Mokone Primary School. "South Africans are always crying in the papers about how whites are so racist. What about them?" asked Obert Chirau, 31, who came to Atteridgeville legally on his Zimbabwean passport. "I am a legal visitor. Why did they stamp my passport at the border when they know they don't want people from Zimbabwe?" Edward Milanzi had heard the buzz on the streets that local residents wanted to chase foreigners away. And so the Phumolong resident didn't waste much time when he was woken up by singing at 3pm on Monday. His initial groggy thoughts were that the noise was the radio. Then he went outside and saw a mob 500 metres away. "It was a huge crowd with bottles, stones, matches and axes," said the 33-year-old, whose shack was destroyed. This week, Attridgeville's streets were full of nyalas, police vans and paramedics. "It's a disaster," said the station's spokesperson, Captain Thomas Mufamadi, as he dropped off blankets provided by sympathetic township residents. Xenophobia had never been an Atteridgeville problem despite suspicions it could spill over from neighbouring areas, said Community Policing Forum (CPF) chairperson Watson Nxele. The rampage started on the same day that the local civic organisation marched to the police station to deliver a memorandum. Police in large numbers were monitoring the march when reports reached the station of gathering mobs, barricades being erected and tyres being set alight."In terms of security, we were caught off guard. We were taken by surprise," Nxele said. That day, March 18, so called "immigrant-hunters" tore through the township's informal settlements in search of foreigners with fanatical, lynch-style shootings, stabbings, torching of property and beatings. Newspaper front pages carried images of residents in a daze of bloodlust that was more civil war Liberia than post-1994 South Africa. But for many, the images were neither new nor surprising. Last month, residents of nearby Itirileng chased away foreign Africans, and even Zulus and Xhosas, and destroyed their belongings. Those who fought back were reportedly stabbed, beaten and dragged naked through the streets. With less than a month before South Africa celebrates its 14th Freedom Day, 2008 has already seen numerous hate-attacks and much publicity over its handling of foreigners. Last month, the Johannesburg high court apologised to foreigners arrested in a midnight raid on downtown Joburg's Central Methodist Church and likened their treatment to apartheid-era abuses. Just this week, Bishop Paul Verryn - whose Central Methodist Church has for years been a congested place of safety for refugees - was warned by parliament's committee on home affairs that he could be arrested for harbouring illegal immigrants. Last month, a hard-hitting report from the International Federation of Human Rights slated the South Africa's migration policy for criminalising migration and fuelling xenophobia. Faten Aggad, researcher at the SA Institute of International Affairs, said a key excuse behind xenophobic attacks was that foreigners stole jobs and were behind crime. This was despite strict laws on employing foreigners and skewed emphasis on foreigner-based crimes, she said. South Africans were particularly xenophobic towards black Africans, she said. "A couple of years ago the highest number of illegal immigrants were European citizens but there was no publicity about this. The focus is on darker skinned nationals." In Brazzaville, while Kufondada was being attacked and his house set alight, a neighbour heard his screams but was too scared to intervene for fear the mob would turn on him. That same night in Jessville, an unidentified person was burned beyond recognition in a shack behind a shop. The only remains of the body were an outline of charred clothes, a few spilled coins and flies buzzing over human faeces. The next day, passers-by had nothing to say about the body that had been removed a few hours earlier from behind Rasta's Cosmetic Shop. The standard response was: 'I don't know." Later, chest freezers, patterned lounge-suite sets, and randomly rescued items disappeared into the school shelter in what was a perfect sunset. In the air was the heavy scent of freshly-peeled oranges dropped off earlier. For many, it was all they had eaten that day. One woman sat with a small suitcase of clothes resting on a lidded plastic bucket containing a few groceries. Around the corner, a wife (robbed of R1 800 in the attack) and her husband jiggled three-month-old twins on school chairs. Nearby, two giggling young children pulled themselves about in cardboard boxes as women inside a classroom talked a language of nappy IOUs. The disparate group included Zambians, Mozambicans, Zimbabweans and Malawians. Many of those displaced questioned how South Africa would pull off hosting the 2010 World Cup with its hundreds of thousands of international visitors. "There isn't a country in the world without foreigners. What about the World Cup. How are the foreigners going to come here?" charged Brazzaville resident Fatimah Abdul, 41. "They don't deserve it. As Africans from the same continent, we supported South Africa getting the cup," said a man. A Malawian-born South African citizen who voted in the 2003 elections said South Africans were never taught how to interact with foreigners. As Africans, they had failed the continent, he said. The next night, Bafana Bafana walloped Paraguay 3-0 at the Atteridgeville Super Stadium within walking distance of the school. The stadium is also just a short distance from the burnt shacks, such as the one belonging to Marai who got her first South African ID book as a foreign resident in 1997 and became a citizen three years ago. "I am a South African who can vote as much as they can vote," she said with her 18-month-old son Hope on her hip. "A country of birth will never change. But whether or not we've got an ID, all they can see is a person who is from Zimbabwe." For Chirau, one of the few who is able to go home, the only option is to return to Zimbabwe. "I don't think I'll ever come back because of the security. I just don't understand the way that they treat foreigners." With South Africa's multiple ethnicities, he would not be surprised if groups turned on each other like in Kenya, he added. "South Africa is like a country outside of Africa. "It's a disgrace."