Turmoil in South Africa Puts Citizens on Edge

Immigrants in South Africa are facing violent attacks from local residents. In recent weeks, 56 people have been killed, and tens of thousands have been forced from their homes. Ferial Haffajee, of the Mail & Guardian, and political scientist Dr. Mcebisi Ndletyana offer analysis.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Our international roundup: news from Zimbabwe, South Africa and Columbia, and we'll find out how one rising hip-hop star is using his rhyming skills to get young people to the polls.

But first, Zimbabwe. Today we had planned to bring you a conversation with Zimbabwe's main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. He recently returned to his country to participate in a runoff election for the presidency planned for June. He's hoping to end Robert Mugabe's 30-year rule over Zimbabwe, who many observers blame for mismanaging the economy and waging a campaign of terror against political opponents.

But shortly before our conversation was to begin earlier today, Tsvangirai received word of a violent attack on some of his supporters just outside of the capital of Harare. The spokesman told us that Tsvangirai was en route to visit with family members and to investigate the situation. We will bring you more information as it becomes available and we hope to bring you the conversation with Mr. Tsvangirai as soon as we can.

So now we move on to South Africa, a country celebrated for its efforts to move beyond a racist history is now in the headlines for a mistreatment of immigrants, many of them from Zimbabwe and other African countries. In recent weeks, attacks on immigrants have killed dozens of people and forced tens of thousands from their homes. And even as the army stepped in to stem the violence in and around Johannesburg, new clashes broke out elsewhere. Here to talk about this is Ferial Haffajee, editor of the Mail and Guardian Newspaper, and political scientist Dr. Dr. Mcebisi Ndletyana, who works at the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa. They're both in Johannesburg. Hello to you both. Thanks for speaking with us.

Dr. MCEBISI NDLETYANA (Political Scientist, Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa): Thank you.

Ms. FERIAL HAFFAJEE (Editor, Mail and Guardian Newspaper): Hello, Michel.

MARTIN: Ferial, if you would start. How did this violence begin? Was it an incident here, an incident there, and is there some sense that it is organized in some way?

Ms. HAFFAJEE: If you check back the xenophobic patterns of violence in our country, it's been happening for about the past three years and it's gotten successively worse. First against Somalians in the western Cape, and then the one that is the set of attacks which has caught the world's attention started in Alexendra about two weeks ago.

MARTIN: Is this directed at immigrants? For example, people who moved to South Africa to start a business. There are many Americans who've moved to South Africa for various reasons - to study, to start businesses, because they've married someone - or is this directed at refugees, people who are say fleeing instability somewhere else and who very often come without resources?

Ms. HAFFAJEE: It's not directed at the African-Americans, I know, who occupy the professional ranks of our country. They work with me, they work with a profession - not at all. It is against economic and political refugees who go into the very, very poorest parts of our country and because they've got better entrepreneurial skills than South Africans, they start hairdressers, what we call spaza(ph) shops, little general dealers, and I think that makes South Africans think, look what these people are doing. They must be taking our opportunities.

MARTIN: Professor Ndletyana, can we hear from you? Why do you think this is happening now?

Dr. NDLETYANA: To me it seems like some kind of an implosion rising from dissatisfaction with a whole range of issues, mainly housing. There's been complaints that foreigners have been taking new houses that have been built for locals and by bribing local counselors. So there's that and also the point that they have been taking jobs, and some of these jobs, though, are not necessarily popular amongst locals here but I think foreigners have been scapegoaters. They kind of have become targets of this resentment.

MARTIN: I guess what I was wondering, is this violence being directed by anyone in particular or does it seem to be, you know, spontaneous or mob-driven, Ferial?

Ms. HAFFAJEE: Michel, it looked to me that because if it was very much copycat attack. Because at first it was just located around hospitals in the - in and around the province of Gauteng, the home province of Johannesburg, but through the weekend it spread to seven of the nine provinces of the country, which suggests copycatting but also letting the genie out of the bottle. Suddenly people thought that was the scapegoat, that's why our problems are so severe, and so you saw the same thing happening around the country very, very quickly.

MARTIN: Professor, you were telling us earlier that South Africa does not have refugee camps per se. It doesn't have particular places where it encourages refugees to go, that refugees go wherever. They're in communities, say, in churches, community centers. Does this make them a target?

Dr. NDLETYANA: Well, refugees who come to South Africa generally are accepted to assimilate into our society which makes these attacks rather surprising because they - you know, they burden networks with locals, they marry - some of them learn the language, and I mean, they become neighbors. You know, people, they depend on the locals and likewise, and all of a sudden therefore to have these attacks on people who have been living next to each other, it's kind of strange in a way.

But then, you know, I suppose other things have turned them, or society, to become haters of these foreigners. And for this kind of violence to happen as if we don't have a history with these people, as if we don't have a cultural link, it's kind of shocking.

MARTIN: Ferial, I get the impression that from the news coverage that the country is rather shocked by this.

Ms. HAFFAJEE: I think that the sentiments expressed by the people who went on the rampage are far greater currently than we who are politically concerned, people in civil society, may like to admit to. I think I've been speaking to lots of people who in fact agree that there may be too many foreigners in South Africa. At the moment, some of the figures bounced about are that there are between eight and ten million illegal immigrants in the country, or perhaps a portion of that are legal immigrants, and that adds a significant number to our population, probably about twenty percent competing for resources at the poorest end of communities. So I think what's really needed is civic education, but perhaps the more hawkish position, we do need to make sure that we are letting in skilled migrants and not letting in at the levels which our country has done since apartheid ended.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Ferial Haffajee, she's the editor of the Mail and Guardian, and Dr. Mcebisi Ndletyana, he's a political scientist with the Human Sciences Research Council. We're speaking about attacks on immigrants in South Africa. How is the government responding to this? Has there been any discussion of this at high levels? Has the president - has Thabo Mbeki spoken about this?

Ms. HAFFAJEE: This week there have been calls for the president to step down, and growing calls, because he's done so poorly at leading the nation on this. He virtually had to be forced into a state of the nation address. As we speak, he is in Japan and he hasn't visited anyone of the poor communities where the violence really ripped the hearts out.

MARTIN: Professor Ndletyana, what do you think about that?

Dr. NDLETYANA: I think the president has been carrying on as if what is happening has nothing to do with him. I mean, he has been a great disappointment, I think. He hasn't even visited some of the areas where these things have been happening. It took him more than a week to say something on national TV. I mean, government generally has been a great disappointment. For instance, the crime intelligence should have picked this thing up. I mean, how can you have something like this happening without them having detected it? ..TEXT: You know, they should have their own networks on the ground. It's only now really that they're active on it. The army has been deployed in the various hot spots, apparently, in the country. So they're waking up to it after the facts.

MARTIN: Ferial, I wanted to ask you, is the bottom line here that the economy is simply not growing quickly enough to offer opportunities both to the native-born South African's and also to the other immigrants who are coming in? Because a lot of the surrounding countries are going through periods of turmoil - like Kenya, like Zimbabwe, of course Kenya being in East Africa. But you know what I mean, South Africa being considered one of the most stable countries on the continent. You know what I mean, with the difficulties in Zimbabwe, people are coming across. Is the core of the issue the economy of South Africa or is the core of the issue instability elsewhere on the continent?

Ms. HAFFAJEE: Firstly, the instability in Zimbabwe, because if you break down that number of immigrants who are in South Africa, the largest proportion, about three million people apparently, come from Zimbabwe.

Now if you've been watching our TV or just generally reading the media you'll see that our borders like candy floss. Zimbabweans, many other people just slip into and out of all the time. So I think that is the sequel. Now what South Africa needs is skills. Its economy has been growing at a cracking pace but it makes it extremely difficult for skilled foreigners to come into the country, yet it is very, very easy to - for unskilled foreign people to come into South Africa.

MARTIN: And what do you think happens now? And asking you to predict, which is always unfair to ask a journalist to predict, but do you have immediate concern that - do you feel that the authorities are at least intervening appropriately to stop the violence, or are you worried? Ferial, and I'll ask both of you this.

Ms. HAFAGEE: I think that it has been now you see the violence being quelled this week. You actually see our leaders on the ground, considering what next to do with the 30,000 to 40,000 people dead cold now, because winter is setting in.

And finally, a little bit of leadership. I think it's been very heartening to see how South African's have pulled together to assist people who have been so awfully thrown out. And now I think it's the concern of what to do with people - to reintegrate them, to make them stay in their own communities, which I don't think is a workable option. It's never, ever been practiced in South Africa.

MARTIN: Professor Ndletyana, a final thought from you?

Dr. NDLETYANA: Well, it is going to be difficult to reintegrate them back into their communities because they fear that they might be attacked again. It's going to take a lot of convincing from government sides and as well as members of the community to reach out to them.

MARTIN: Professor Mcebisi Ndletyana is a political scientist with the Human Sciences Research Council. He joined us on the phone from Johannesburg. We were also joined by Ferial Haffajee. She's the editor of The Mail and Guardian. She was also in Johannesburg. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Dr. NDLETYANA: Thank you.

Ms. HAFAGEE: See you.

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