The Roots of Violence in South Africa

The border between Zimbabwe and South Africa

hide captionPolitical scientist Marc Howard Ross says 60 percent of immigrants crossing into South Africa are from Zimbabwe.

John Moore/Getty Images

After several weeks of violence in which mobs of South Africans have attacked immigrants from other African countries, Johannesburg authorities have opened refugee camps to house as many as 10,000 who remain vulnerable to the violence.

It's a situation that's not only resulted in fires, riots and the deaths of as many as 50 mostly Zimbabwean men and women: According to political scientist Marc Howard Ross, the violence shines a light on ethnic tensions and a level of xenophobia that cast a dark shadow on South Africa's post-apartheid image.

"It's very embarrassing," says Ross, a professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. "The neighboring countries were the frontline countries that supported the [African National Congress,] politically and monetarily." Now, years later, Ross says, those former supporter nations are the object of intense hatred on the behalf of young South Africans.

As for the causes of the anger, Ross says there's no single factor. The townships are plagued by conditions in which at least 25 percent of adults are unemployed. Recent months have also seen soaring prices for food and fuel. Behind the failure to address the problems, Ross says, is a government that isn't that terribly experienced.

Ross says the African National Congress has been successful on a national level, but that it has never been terribly active at the grassroots. In other words, South Africa is led by a political party behind which an entire continent rallied to help end apartheid. Ross says it's been a difficult shift to move from world-changing revolution to supplying social services. To address more every day inequality is a daunting task, he says.

"It's easier to end apartheid than to recover from its effects," Ross says. Bearing the brunt of all the frustration, for now, are the men and women from neighboring countries where things are even worse.

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