Anti-Immigrant Tensions Rise Again In South Africa Anti-foreigner violence is grabbing the headlines again in South Africa. Immigrants have fled their homes and have left the country, just as they did during the anti-immigrant violence of 2008, which left more than 60 people dead.
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Anti-Immigrant Tensions Rise Again In South Africa

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Anti-Immigrant Tensions Rise Again In South Africa

Anti-Immigrant Tensions Rise Again In South Africa

Anti-Immigrant Tensions Rise Again In South Africa

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129038858/129210674" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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South African soldiers check the documents of residents of the Diepsloot township north of Johannesburg, South Africa, on July 9. Police and army had deployed due to growing rumors of attacks on foreigners. Jerome Delay/AP hide caption

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Jerome Delay/AP

South African soldiers check the documents of residents of the Diepsloot township north of Johannesburg, South Africa, on July 9. Police and army had deployed due to growing rumors of attacks on foreigners.

Jerome Delay/AP

Anti-foreigner violence is grabbing the headlines again in South Africa after what seemed to be a break during the World Cup.

Immigrants have fled their homes and have left the country, just as they did during the anti-immigrant violence of 2008, which left more than 60 people dead.

At the Methodist Mission in central Johannesburg, Bishop Paul Verryn welcomes a Zimbabwean woman and her baby, two of the many African immigrants who are seeking help.

"Well, people have said that South Africans have told them they must go back to where they come from, they don't belong here," Verryn says. "Some have been threatened, some assaulted. But the general feeling is they must get out of here."

During the deadly wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa two years ago, the church became a refuge for hundreds of immigrants, mostly from Zimbabwe. Verryn says it's happening again, though on a smaller scale.

Just weeks ago, South Africans were cheering Ghana as the continent's last hope during the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Now that the games are over, the euphoria has cooled, and some of the resentment against foreigners has turned violent.

"They came to us in the night. ... Eight guys came to our place. They know we're Zimbabweans," says Tinashay Negomo, who fled to South Africa five years ago to escape economic turmoil and violence.

She says she was asleep at her home in Soweto when the locals came, warning the house would be burnt down if she didn't come out. Then, she says, one man grabbed hold of her.

"The other one beat me with wooden plank. He hit me on the back; another one on the head," she says.

Even after the attack, Negomo didn't go to the police.

"I was scared," she says. "I was scared."

Negomo and her housemates are among many foreigners who have been threatened or attacked in recent weeks.

The South African government's response has been ambiguous. It recently re-established the interministerial committee on xenophobia. But its head, and minister of police, Nathi Mthethwa, describes the latest violence as criminal, and not based on race or ethnicity.

"There's crime in South Africa and we are dealing with crime," Mthethwa says. "There's nothing systematic, which has been, as xenophobia.

"Even those incidents we are talking about -- people have been looting shops and police are arresting them. They will continue arresting them and we will smoke them."

Loren Landau, who is with the Forced Migration Studies Program at University of the Witwatersrand, says more must be done to address the root causes of the widespread resentment against immigrants from the rest of Africa.

"I think what you're seeing is extraordinary fear," he says. "Hundreds if not thousands have left their homes and the country."

Unemployment rates of more than 25 percent and the unmet post-apartheid promises of better housing and services are wearing down the patience of the poor.

"It's natural -- not necessarily forgivable -- it's natural for people to look for scapegoats, to look for people who are from outside, who you can blame for the failings of government," Landau says.

In Alexandra, a sprawling township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, a group of men is playing a board game outside in the cold South African winter air.

It was here in 2008 that the wave of anti-immigrant violence began, eventually taking the lives of more than 60 people and displacing thousands. Questions about African immigrants, even now, fracture the friendly mood.

"The people from the outside of this country, we don't need them because they're taking our jobs," says Victor Mbatha, who, like everyone else around the table, is unemployed.

The others nod in agreement.

"We want them to go back to their countries ... because this is our country," Mbatha says.

But not everyone agrees.

Mbali Gamede and Nolwazi Mabaso are washing the dishes and preparing dinner. The teenage girls are dismayed by the anti-foreign sentiment of their neighbors.

Under apartheid, South Africans sought refuge in neighboring states. Nolwazi says they should offer the same hospitality to those now in need.