Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Strangers in a Strange Land

As many have no doubt become aware, there is a new crisis in South Africa which begun about two weeks ago. Seemingly (to me) out of nowhere, poor South Africans in Alexandra (a town near Joburg) started brutally attacking "foreigners" living there. The violence (which involved some truly inhuman attacks) quickly spread to townships in Johannesburg, to Durban, and most recently even to Cape Town (which is some 800 miles away). What seemed initially to be an isolated outburst of poverty-inspired anger has spread into a massive (inter)national crisis.

Let me be clear - I am in no (more than usual) danger. These attacks are focused upon poor Africans, mainly from Zimbabwe and Mozambique. They are being perpetrated by poor South Africans in the poverty-stricken townships on the outskirts of cities. They seem to be lashing out in anger because of the high (30%) unemployment rate and horrific crime. Of course, from what I can tell, these victims are just scapegoats - I've heard that only 1% of crime is caused by foreigners, and many of these people are taking semi-skilled jobs (in mines, vineyards, factories, etc.) which the majority of South Africans are unqualified for, or setting up their own businesses.

But these attacks are no joke. More than 40 people have died (some burned alive) and thousands upon thousands of people have been displaced. UCT is organizing relief efforts for people who have had to leave their homes here in Cape Town for fear of being attacked. A Kenyan friend of mine at the university was helping to organize people to stay in the basketball courts on campus. Another friend of mine who works in an educational institution in the townships says that one of the children in her school has had to leave because her family's shack was looted and burnt to the ground. And the violence continues.

And what is the South African government doing about all of this? Not much. Despite my lack of pre-knowledge on the issue, it seems that there was plenty of evidence that bad vibes were brewing. According to the BBC

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.

And speaking of Zimbabweans, many people are blaming much of the problem on President Mbeki, who refuses to allow refugee status to the more than 3 million Zimbabweans here (compared to 40 million total South Africans) who are fleeing the violence and repression of leader Robert Mugabe in their own country. Allowing them such status, even though it would let them put these people in refugee camps where they could have access to relief efforts and such, would imply that there is a problem in Zim. But of course, Mbeki and Mugabe are old buds, and he has continually refused to make any negative statements about the horrible repression of Mugabe. Which leads to even more negative attitude of the general South African population against people who would crowd into their country when there is nothing for them to be afraid of back home.

All in all, this is a most fucked-up situation.

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