April 19 (GIN)—Shocking images of South Africans beating foreign-born residents residing in Durban, Johannesburg and other parts of the country stunned the continent, which had taken a message of brotherhood from former South African President Nelson Mandela.
At least six people were killed, more than 5,000 people were displaced and shops were looted and razed in the attacks that have been building over weeks. Most of those affected were refugees and asylum seekers who were forced to leave their home countries because of war and persecution, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees said.
The riots forced President Jacob Zuma to cancel a state visit to Indonesia and inspect one of the camps in the Durban suburb of Chatsworth, where more than 1,000 foreign nationals were sleeping in tents and relying on volunteers for food. Many were boarding buses to return to Malawi, Zimbabwe and other home countries.
“It is not every South African who says go away, not at all,” Zuma said. “It is a very small number who say so. We want to live as sisters and brothers.”
The spark for the attacks was linked to comments by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini at a traditional event north of KwaZulu Natal. At first he seemed to be criticizing South Africans for being lazy and not wanting to plough their fields. “When foreigners look at [us], they say ‘let us exploit this nation of idiots,’” he stated. “As I speak, you find their unsightly goods hanging all over our shops. They dirty our streets. We cannot even recognize which shop is which. There are foreigners everywhere.”
He later denied the statement, until media replayed a recording of it.
Retaliation for the attacks was seen in Mozambique after a Mozambican national was seen murdered on TV. South African vehicles were pelted with stones. In Nigeria, South African companies were reportedly threatened with closure. Protests were seen at various South African embassies across the continent, and several South African musicians were forced to cancel concerts abroad.
Sasol, an energy and chemical giant, evacuated 340 South Africans from Mozambique over fears for their safety. In Zambia, a privately owned radio station stopped playing South African music in protest.
An anti-xenophobic peace march organized by local South African officials took place April 16 and was well attended. Some 5,000 people, including religious leaders and politicians, marched in solidarity with foreign nationals. The atmosphere was mostly calm, with protesters singing solidarity songs.
Still, Jean-Pierre Lukamba, an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, feared for the worst. “They are using us as scapegoats,” he said. “Every day, migrants are living in this fire. It’s not just attacks. It’s institutionalized xenophobia. The government must do something. Those people aren’t just mad for no reason. They want electricity, they want jobs, they want water.”
Lukamba said he’s part of an organization trying to negotiate between the two sides. “They don’t understand the history of Africa; if they do, they would know each of us, we are one,” he said.