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Anti-foreigner violence remains endemic in South Africa

South Africa is presenting itself as an open and liberal multi-cultural nation for as it gears up the soccer World Cup. But violent xenophobia, especially aimed at immigrants from northern neighbors, is endemic.

A Somali in his Spaza shop, which are often the targets of xenophobic violence

A Somali in his "Spaza shop," which are often the targets of xenophobic violence

"They came in the afternoon, at three or four o'clock," said Zaid Ali Mohammed remembering the day his shop was ransacked. "A group of men ran up to my shop, pried the door open and forced their way in. After they'd looted everything, they threw rocks. That's when I ran away."

Thirteen years before he fled flying stones, Zaid fled the civil war in Somalia, first taking a boat to Mozambique and then continuing on to South Africa. But while he had managed to escape the battling warlords in his native country, he has found himself face-to-face with South African toughs who use violence to express their distaste toward foreigners in their country.

"They call us insulting names like 'Makhula,' or 'Indian,' but I'm an African," he said, adding that he believes one motivating factor is envy. "They don't want to work and their shops are empty. So when they see our kiosks, they get jealous."

With a small amount of start capital, Zaid opened a corner shop in Middelberg, a small city about two hours by car from the capital Johannesburg. His store sells things like bread, milk and fruit, and he named it "Siyabonga," which means "thank you."

But he has to laugh of the irony of his choice, since his South African neighbors have shown little appreciation for his business. On the contrary, many accuse him of stealing customers away from other shops in the neighborhood owned by native South Africans. It was in March that the men came and ransacked his shop. Zaid feels lucky to have escaped with his life.

'Year of horror'

Other have not been as fortunate. In the office of an association representing Somali interests in South Africa, Sheik Amir Hussein, the group's director, pulls up on a laptop computer photographs taken in morgues of Somalis who have been killed in the anti-foreigner violence.

Zaid Ali Mohammed points to a newspaper article addressing the anti-foreigner violence

Zaid Ali Mohammed points to a newspaper article addressing the anti-foreigner violence

"This one here shows Amfar, the first Somali victim," he said. He has shown the pictures to dozens of groups, trying to raise awareness of the problem. Recently, he presented the macabre slide show to South African President Jacob Zuma.

Amfar was murdered in May 19, 2008 on the day that the first big wave of xenophobic violence broke out in South Africa. Other pictures show faces photographed after autopsies or bodies lying in pools of blood at the scene of the crime.

That year was especially bad for the anti-foreigner violence, and Amir simply refers to 2008 as the year of horror. Some 1,500 Somali shops were looted and 109 Somalis murdered. It was common to see gangs of men in the townships going from door to door, looking for people from Somalia or Zimbabwe, looking to wound or kill.

It was only after a Somali woman and her three children were killed execution style by a mob in September of that year that the wave of xenophobia became an issue with the South African public and got noticed by the country's politicians.

New awareness

Since then, Amir and his interest group have been sought out but both the police and politicians, and in his large office in the Mayfair district, people are constantly coming and going.

The colorful, lively neighborhood is home to many businesses owned by Somalis, Indians and Pakistanis and sitting in a tearoom there, one might think one had landed somehow in Mogadishu. Here is where expatriate Somalis meet to exchange information and catch up on the gossip.

Siraj Chikwatu in his shop

Siraj Chikwatu in his shop

This morning, South African Tsakani Maswangany has come all the way from Soweto to Mayfair to have some copies made in the "5 Degree" shop, owned by Siraj Chikwatu. Siraj is a native of Malawi and has his own stories of anti-foreigner sentiment .

"Friends of mine have been attacked and lost their possessions," he said. "I've had to watch who shops were looted and people beaten. Thank God that I myself have been spared so far."

His customer Tsakani has a difficult time understanding what might be the motivation for the brutal attacks carried out by her fellow South Africans.

"I think it's not fair, but at the same time, I can understand their motives," she said, adding that the high unemployment had made many South Africans envious of the foreigners' business success.

"But we are all Africans so we shouldn't go about killing each other," she said.

After World Cup, what?

The brutal terror campaign by Islamic militants in Somali is pushing more and more Somalis to leave their country and try their luck in South Africa. Some, like Amir and others, are fairly well connected now in their new home and have even personally explained the problem of anti-foreigner violence to the presidents of South Africa and Somalia.

New pressure is also being put upon security forces, but there are hundreds of thousands of other job-seekers from the north who have no lobby organization behind them, and little recourse in the face of the continuing violence.

South Africa continues to spruce itself up for the games, ready to put on its best face. But immigrants from Zimbabwe, the Congo and Somalia fear what will happen once the cameras have been packed up and the reporters gone home. Threats like: "Then we'll hunt you out of the country" are all too common.

For decades during apartheid, South Africans found sanctuary in neighboring countries. But whether South Africa can return the favor and accept foreign refugees on its own soil, even after the World Cup has been awarded, remains an open question.

Author: Ludger Schadomsky (jam)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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