After Wave of Xenophobic Violence South Africa Is Disgusted with Itself

The world watched in shock as a wave of xenophobic violence engulfed South Africa, leaving more than 50 dead and tens of thousands displaced. Now the people of South Africa are asking the victims for forgiveness -- and accusing the Mbeki government of massive failures.
Von Karl-Ludwig Günsche

The two scenes could not have been more different. South African President Thabo Mbeki read out his speech to the nation Sunday in a wooden voice devoid of passion, trotting out the usual political clichés of sadness, shame and disgrace.

On the same day in the village of Masiphumelele near Cape Town, a tearful Nontembiso Madikane embraced her former neighbor Abdi Sirej from Somalia.

Madikane's entire village is ashamed of itself -- and its residents are promising to make up for what they have done. Indeed, they are solemnly asking the foreigners who fled from their village for forgiveness. Moreover, they are asking the immigrants to return and have promised to give back looted property. Residents are even reporting offenders to the police and promising to protect their frightened neighbors in the future.

"They belong here," local Methodist pastor Vuyo Ngwenyana says, referring to the village's foreign residents.

The governor of the Western Cape Province, Ebrahim Rasool, is overwhelmed by the village's actions. "The leadership and people of Masiphumelele have done the unthinkable. Convincing people to return the goods which were stolen is a brave move," he said. “You have shown true leadership for the rest of our province and, indeed, the entire country."

Since the outbreak of attacks on African immigrants in Johannesburg's Alexandra township two weeks ago, at least 50 people have been killed, hundreds injured and tens of thousands displaced. During much of that time, the silence from the country's leadership was deafening.

Over the weekend, however, the country finally began to find its voice. Professor Loren Landau, a migration researcher from the University of Witwatersrand, coined a motto for the counter-movement: "The nightmare is a wake-up call."

In Johannesburg and Cape Town, thousands took to the streets to show solidarity with the victims of violence. Politicians, artists, scientists, doctors, lawyers, students, and housewives lined up to demonstrate. "Never again," the demonstrators promised their fellow citizens from other African states.

Prominent musicians wrote a song against xenophobia, singing: "Not in Our Lifetime." "We will write the song with what pours from our hearts at the studio tomorrow," star rapper Slikour told South Africa's The Sunday Times newspaper. “We want to spread the word that the violence should stop."

Thousands of South Africans have reached deep into their pockets to donate money to help the victims. From Johannesburg to Cape Town, volunteers have been collecting clothing, food, blankets, money, toys -- all things that are desperately needed in the emergency shelters.

Bank manager George Woods, who is a lay preacher in the Methodist Church, was so shocked by the misery after a visit to one of the shelters in Johannesburg that he organized a spontaneous relief campaign. In four days, he collected 10 tons of food and clothing. The aid organization Gift of the Givers collected 1 million rand (€83,000) in just a few days.

An anonymous donor sent a five-ton truck loaded high with relief goods. Churches, aid agencies, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Jewish community of South Africa all helped to collect donations. Some gifts are more modest: a pound of flour, a loaf of bread or a basket full of vegetables. Often, though, that is all the donors can afford.

After the first non-violent weekend in 14 days, South Africa is now beginning to take stock of the horrors. It was the worst, bloodiest and most violent unrest since the end of apartheid 14 years ago. For the first time since those dark days of South Africa's history, heavily armed military patrolled through the streets of the townships. Last Friday, General Kwena Mangope was forced to announce that one person had even died during a military operation in the outskirts of Johannesburg.

Some 30,000 people left their homes in panic in the Gauteng province around Johannesburg and Pretoria and sought refuge in churches, town halls, schools and police stations. In the Cape Town region, the figure was 20,000. Even the South African Navy's home port in Simonstown was opened for refugees.

According to official figures, 19,850 Mozambicans had fled back to their home county as of Monday morning. To care for them all, refugee camps have been set up in Mozambique on the border with South Africa to, at the international airport in the capital Maputo and in the capital city itself. In Beitbridge, the bottleneck at the border of South Africa with Zimbabwe, the migration trend has reversed: For the first time in months, fewer people are fleeing from Robert Mugabe's dictatorship than are returning from South Africa.

The political leadership of South Africa is on the defensive. Many have accused the government have having been warned well in advance of the coming violence. According to reports, ambassadors from other African states told Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula that the Department of Home Affairs was handed a written warning as early as April.

"Of course we were aware there was something brewing," Minister for Intelligence Services Ronnie Kasrils acknowledged in a radio interview. Nevertheless, the government was surprised by the outbreak of violence.

Public criticism of the government's crisis management is increasingly being directed at the already beleaguered president, Thabo Mbeki. The high-circulation Sunday Times published a bitter reckoning with the once celebrated political star in its latest issue, under the headline "Mr. President: Please stand down now."

"Throughout this crisis -- arguably the most grave, dark and repulsive moment in the life of our young nation -- Mbeki has demonstrated that he no longer has the heart to lead," the paper wrote. "And so we appeal to President Mbeki: Stand down in the interests of your country."

Political scientist Frans Cronje of the Institute of Race Relations reaches the bitter conclusion that the excesses of the past two weeks were "a direct response to policy failures on the part of Thabo Mbeki's government." The president disputes that claim. In his speech to the nation, he again and again relativized the ethnic violence as the work of individuals and criminals.

But he should have had every reason to be concerned. At the weekend, South African newspapers revealed the shocking results of a previously unpublished survey. As The Sunday Times put it, "South Africa is, officially, the most xenophobic nation in the world."

"Sadly, it does not surprise me that we are the worst in the world on this issue," commented none less than Thabo Mbeki's brother Moeletsi Mbeki, a respected social scientist, in remarks to The Sunday Times. "But certainly the violence could have been avoided,” he added.

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