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SOUTH AFRICA: “Xenophobia Simmering Just Below Boiling Point”

Kim Cloete

CAPE TOWN, Sep 1 2010 (IPS) - “Xenophobia is part of life. We do not live easy here. We only survive,” says Somali shopkeeper, Abdinasir Shaikh Aden, looking tense.

Liliane Mukangwa: "South Africans say to us that we have come here to take their husbands, their wives, their jobs." Credit: Kim Cloete/IPS

Liliane Mukangwa: "South Africans say to us that we have come here to take their husbands, their wives, their jobs." Credit: Kim Cloete/IPS

He paces up and down the central Cape Town street where his small shop is squeezed in between two other businesses. While the xenophobic threats and attacks that resurged before the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup in July have largely died down, Somali refugees remain on their guard.

Aden was threatened with his life during the run-up to the Cup. He was chased away from his small grocery shop and told that foreigners would have no future in South Africa once the tourists and fans had gone home after the final soccer match on Jul 11.

Fear drove scores of people to pack their belongings and head towards the highways, train stations and borders of South Africa.

With the May 2008 xenophobic killing of 66 people, displacement of some 6,000 African foreigners and looting of property in South Africa still a bitter memory, going home seemed the safest option. Many of those who left the country were Zimbabweans.

In the Western Cape province where Cape Town is situated, 55 incidents of xenophobia were recorded between May and July, which led to 40 arrests.


Miranda Madikane, director of the Cape Town-based Scalabrini Centre, which assists migrants, said 68 percent of migrants they surveyed had received threats shortly before the World Cup in June and July this year.

“The police were on high alert, government was on high alert, civil society was on high alert. Everyone was ready to respond – and that was useful in dousing the flames.”

Non-governmental organisations, the police and refugees themselves say the threats have dissipated and life has mostly returned to a somewhat uneasy calm.

Last week, the police told IPS that they had not received any xenophobic reports recently but would remain on the lookout for criminals who intimidated foreign nationals. They were working with civil society and residents.

“The police department is sustaining this collaborative approach. Should any criminal activities pop up, we will deal with them decisively,” chief director of communications for the South African Police Services, Zweli Mnisi, assures IPS.

But, while overt attacks may have subsided, “we still need to be on high alert because the threat of attack is simmering just under boiling point”, says Madikane.

A dangerous combination of cramped living conditions and competition for jobs remains. The recession and deepening unemployment in South Africa is exacerbating the pressure on poor communities.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says about 357,000 people have official asylum seeker or refugee status in South Africa. But there are no official statistics for what is gauged at several million more people who have flooded into South Africa in search of jobs and livelihoods.

“There are a lot of undocumented people roaming around. South Africans have a right to be upset about this. There is overcrowding – and then more people just walk in. The government needs to come up with a whole new system to deal with it,” believes Madikane.

But for people like Liliane Mukangwa, who settled in South Africa with her husband and five children, moving back to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is not an option.

“It is hard for us as we have nowhere to go. We do not want to go home. It is too dangerous there.” Mukangwa has been living in South Africa for eight years and sells curios and fabric, mainly to tourists in Cape Town’s Greenmarket Square.

She says foreigners are still feeling the heat. “Life is difficult here. South Africans say to us that we have come here to take their husbands, their wives, their jobs…”

She spares space with South African stallholders at the market but makes sure she travels to her house every day during daylight hours accompanied by family and friends from the DRC. She is scared of travelling alone on public transport: “There is often tension on the trains.”

In informal settlements like Masiphumelele on the outskirts of Cape Town’s Hout Bay suburb, locals and refugees are trying their best to live side by side. The community received a major award for soothing xenophobic tensions a few years ago.

Reverend Mzuvukile Nikelo of Masiphumelele says that after the 2008 xenophobic attacks people crammed into the township, seeing it as a safe haven. Some landlords snubbed locals as they realised they could charge foreigners more for rented shacks.

Nikelo estimates that about 20 percent of the community, or some 40,000 people, are foreign nationals.

Despite the difficulties, he is pushing ahead with initiatives that encourage unity in the area. His Social Cohesion Movement has had an impact through bringing people together in sport and music activities, as well as prayer days. He is also spearheading a move for Somali shopkeepers to share their skills with potential local entrepreneurs.

Overcrowded and poverty-stricken areas are most at risk of a flare-up of tensions.

But some of the people IPS spoke to who live and work in the city centre say their lives have continued as normal. Mohammed Ahmed, who sells sweets, chocolates and cigarettes at a makeshift stall near the national parliament in Cape Town, says his customers are kind and he has no problems.

His fellow Somali shopkeeper, Aden, has appealed for more of this spirit: “Welcome us as brothers,” is his plea.

 
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