Thousands Flee After Anti-Immigrant Violence Strikes South Africa NPR's Robert Siegel talks with South African journalist S'thembile Cele about how violence against immigrants has flared in South Africa.

Thousands Flee After Anti-Immigrant Violence Strikes South Africa

Thousands Flee After Anti-Immigrant Violence Strikes South Africa

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NPR's Robert Siegel talks with South African journalist S'thembile Cele about how violence against immigrants has flared in South Africa. At least five people have been killed, and more than two thousand have fled to makeshift camps and police stations.


In South Africa, more than 2,000 people have fled to makeshift camps and police stations. They're immigrants living in fear after a wave of violent attack in the last week. The violence was reignited after the country's Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, told his followers that immigrants should pack their bags and go. The immigrants are accused of taking South African jobs. At least five people have been killed after looters attacked immigrant shopkeepers. Most of the unrest has happened in and around the city of Durban. For more on this, we reached S'thembile Cele of the South African newspaper City Press. Welcome to the program.

S'THEMBILE CELE: Hi, Robert. Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: And what did the Zulu king say exactly, and why would his comments provoke such violence?

CELE: So he made a speech a couple of weeks ago in KwaZulu-Natal. The speech was in Zulu, and so he claimed in the days that followed that the mostly English media misinterpreted what he was saying. But it did come down to the fact that he said foreigners are lice that need to be scratched away and that they need to go back to the countries that they come from.

SIEGEL: That foreigners are lice - well, has the government been at least attempting to stop the violence?

CELE: The feeling is that they're not doing enough. They have condemned little number of occasions - the president spoke in Parliament today as well and reiterated that he strongly condemns the human rights violations that are happening at the moment. But the feeling on the ground is that not enough is being done and it's just mostly lip service. Experts at migration centers are saying that they have warned for a long time now that these attacks happen every now and then because there's no accountability. People feel that they can get away with these acts, and so they continue.

SIEGEL: And tell us - in everyday life, would you expect to see a great deal of work in South Africa being performed by immigrants or a great many shops owned and operated by immigrants?

CELE: Definitely over the past couple of years it's been an incredible spike - so mostly convenient stores that have popped up everywhere, and the complaint from some people in these areas is that these foreign nationals - the shops, they buy things in bulk, and they basically have the monopoly of the business in the area and that they employ their own brothers, sisters and family members from wherever it is that they come from. And so they, in that sense, take jobs from the people. But it's not the case at all. I suppose it's just the feeling in those areas - that jobs are being taken away. But in most cases, like you say, it is small businesses, entrepreneurship.

SIEGEL: And for some context here, what is unemployment like in South Africa?

CELE: Very, very high. Extremely high. So, you know, the whole argument of foreigners taking their jobs - I wouldn't say it has merit because it's a lot more nuanced than that in the sense that they also provide a lot of skills that we don't have in this country. For example, I was speaking to some people today that were saying that they employ Zimbabweans mostly for long-distance truck driving. And so in that instance, in order for their business to survive, they must then give these jobs to people from outside.

SIEGEL: There was a string of attacks against foreigners in 2008 near Johannesburg. Sixty people died. Are there parallels to what's happening now to what happened then?

CELE: It definitely does appear to be the same kind of situation. Hopefully, we can lock it down. At the beginning of the week - or rather, the last couple of weeks, it was just contained to Durban and surrounding areas. Yesterday there was a number of the flare-ups in Johannesburg in the center of the city as well - nothing too hectic, but it seems like there is this spread.

SIEGEL: S'thembile Cele, thank you very much for talking with us.

CELE: Thank you very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: S'thembile Cele is a reporter for the South African paper City Press. She spoke to us from Johannesburg about violence that has erupted in South Africa against immigrants.

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