Violence erupts in the city of promise (24.07.09)

Violence erupts in the city of promise (24.07.09)

GAUTENG means "place of gold". The lure of wealth has drawn migrant workers to what is now South Africa's richest province, since gold was first discovered more than 120 years ago.

From a small mining camp in the 1880s, Johannesburg, Gauteng's main metropolis has become one of Africa's great cities. In recent years, more and more foreigners have poured in.

No-one knows exactly how many live in the crowded inner-city areas and in the squalid informal settlements scattered across Gauteng Province.

The wave of violent attacks on African migrants should have come as little surprise.

There have been simmering tensions between South Africans and foreign nationals for some time, most notably in Cape Town where members of the local Somali community have been victimised over the past couple of years.

There has also been a continuing influx of tens of thousands of Zimbabweans, fleeing the political and economic crisis in their home country.

It is often reported there are up to three million Zimbabwean exiles in South Africa, although the figure is impossible to confirm.

The Zimbabweans are frequently blamed by local people for much of South Africa's crime.

However, the xenophobic anger and violence seen over the past fortnight can be more easily explained by economic factors.

"What's really triggered it, is business competition.

South Africans think that foreigners are controlling the taxi industry and the spaza shops (small stores) in the townships", says Loren Landau, Director of the Forced Migration Studies Programme at Wits University in Johannesburg.

Politicians have been quick to point out that many of the African migrants in South Africa have helped to build the wealth of the country.

"Many of them have applied their skills and knowledge in ways that have contributed to Gauteng's economic growth and development and continue to do so", said the Gauteng Provincial Government in a statement released this week.

The Zimbabwean migrants are a prime example.

The country's advanced education system in the early years of independence has created a generation of highly skilled professionals, notably doctors, nurses and teachers.

One problem for the South African government is that it has always been loath to criticise President Robert Mugabe's failed regime. The South African leader, Thabo Mbeki, refuses to describe Zimbabwe as "a crisis".

As a result, Zimbabwean exiles are, for the most part, treated as economic migrants, rather than given refugee status.

This leaves them fully exposed to the frustration of local South Africans Meanwhile South Africa has given fresh figures on the numbers of people killed and displaced by the wave of attacks on foreigners over the past two weeks.

Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula told the BBC 56 people had been killed and more than 650 injured. Previously, 50 deaths were reported. More than 30,000 had been displaced or forced from their homes, he said.

Other organisations said this was a gross under-estimation and that at least 80,000 had been displaced.

According to South Africa's Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), as many as 100,000 Africans may have been driven from their houses.

The organisation says it has done a careful count in the Johannesburg area and other organisations have conducted similar tallies in Cape Town and Durban.

Over the weekend South African troops had been deployed for the first time in an effort to stop attacks on foreigners .

Soldiers backed police in early morning raids at three hostels in Johannesburg, arresting 28 people and seizing drugs, arms and ammunition.

This is the first time soldiers have been used to stamp out unrest in South Africa since the 1994 end of apartheid.

Some 15,000 people have sought shelter from the attacks.

In African Echo.

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CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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