TOPICS > Politics

Rising Violence Pushes Immigrants to Flee South Africa

May 29, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Political fear and uncertainty in Zimbabwe have driven many people to neighboring South Africa, prompting a violent backlash from South Africans who claim that jobs are being lost to immigrants. Analysts examine the dynamics that have led to this rise in violence.
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RAY SUAREZ: A weeks-long campaign of anti-immigrant violence in South Africa has killed more than 50 people and left 40,000 displaced. Immigrant residents of South Africa have been driven from their homes, as violence raged across the country.

The South African attackers have blamed immigrants for increased crime and a shortage of jobs for poor South Africans. Joseph Chatiza was one of thousands from neighboring Zimbabwe, a country near political and economic collapse.

IMMIGRANT TO SOUTH AFRICA: We are not taking their jobs. The reason why we are running away from our country is that, in our country, there’s no work, no work and no money, so we come here for green pasture.

RAY SUAREZ: The violence was most intense in South Africa’s largest city, Johannesburg, its surrounding areas, and on the Atlantic coast in Cape Town.

Local leaders expressed shock at the spasm of violence in Johannesburg.

FIROZ CACHALIA, Community Safety Official: South Africa represents an emancipation from tribalism, from discrimination. That’s what we represent to ourselves and the world, and so it was an embarrassment. It was shocking.

RAY SUAREZ: The government of South African President Thabo Mbeki has set up camps for these internally displaced people, many of whom have lived in the country for years.

Mbeki was criticized for leaving South Africa during the crisis last week. He ordered the military in to restore calm. It was the first such internal military police action since the end of apartheid in 1994.

Some immigrants have fled to their homelands. This man returned to a camp set up in Mozambique, a nation bordering South Africa to the northeast. He was unsure of his brother’s whereabouts in their former home.

IMMIGRANT TO SOUTH AFRICA: My brother is there. I don’t know if he is dead; I don’t know still if he is alive. So I’m here, trying to run.

RAY SUAREZ: This man is trying to return to Somalia.

IMMIGRANT TO SOUTH AFRICA: I want to die in my country. I don’t want to die in South Africa. I want to go back to Mogadishu.

RAY SUAREZ: Back in South Africa, winter is coming, and medical personnel fear conditions in the makeshift camps will worsen.

DOCTOR: We are treating more patients with common diseases related normally to their living conditions, so with patients with common cold, with stress diseases, with diarrhea, and we are treating in mobile clinics.

RAY SUAREZ: Calm has begun to be restored, but there’s now mounting criticism of Mbeki’s government, and a leading newspaper called for him to resign. Some international investors have also been expressing concern.

Problems align to create tension

Roxanne Lawson
Transafrica Forum
The second, and I think really underlying cause, is the reality that, for South Africans, especially poor South Africans, the things that they struggled for in independence have not been granted to them.

RAY SUAREZ: For more, we're joined by Roxanne Lawson, director of Africa Policy at TransAfrica Forum, an advocacy group based in Washington. She visited South Africa and Zimbabwe earlier this year.

And Scott Taylor, director of African studies at Georgetown University.

Roxanne Lawson, foreigners coming from other countries in Africa into South Africa has been a problem for years. Why this sudden, violent backlash now?

ROXANNE LAWSON, TransAfrica Forum: I think there are two reasons for this sudden, violent backlash. One is the situation in Zimbabwe. As its economy and political situation melts down, rumors of even more and more Zimbabweans crossing the border to South Africa has South Africans worried.

The second, and I think really underlying cause, is the reality that, for South Africans, especially poor South Africans, the things that they struggled for in independence have not been granted to them.

Many South Africans live in substandard housing without access to clean water, to electricity. And so those kind of things in the townships where then you have increased immigration cause, I think, economic and social tensions and that many South Africans frustrated about their own situation are taking it out on the people who are near them.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Taylor, was there a spark, a particular incident, some turning point that brought this about?

SCOTT TAYLOR, African Studies, Georgetown University: Well, what Roxanne said is correct. And what we have to think about, also, is that the violence against immigrant populations in South Africa is not exactly new.

What we haven't seen before is on this scale and this kind of publicity, but it has gone on even from the late apartheid period, certainly, and through the post-apartheid period.

The spark for this particular event was on May 11th in the township, just outside of Johannesburg, of Alexandra, where a number of immigrant shops and individuals were targeted. And this set off this wave of violence that literally spread to other areas of around Johannesburg and throughout the country.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there good, solid statistics? Can we know for certain how many people from elsewhere in the continent have come in to South Africa?

SCOTT TAYLOR: No. The statistics on immigrants in South Africa really range from -- the figure that's bandied about now is about 5 million out...

RAY SUAREZ: Out of?

SCOTT TAYLOR: ... out of a population of about 47 million, 48 million people.

RAY SUAREZ: OK.

SCOTT TAYLOR: So a significant percentage, but no one really knows for sure how many immigrants, certainly illegal immigrants, there are in South Africa today.

What we do know, however, is an estimated 3 million of those are actually from Zimbabwe. So Zimbabwe makes up the bulk of that population, but they are from all over the continent of Africa.

Future for immigrants uncertain

Roxanne Lawson
Transafrica Forum
South Africa itself was forged out of many different populations agreeing to live and work together, to put down arms and build something new and better. And immigrants are a part of that.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, now what? We see people going into camps. And the government is trying to figure out whether they should be small camps or large camps. But they're going into some form of state protection. Will they be able to go back to their old lives in big cities around South Africa?

ROXANNE LAWSON: I certainly hope so. I know that the South African Congress of Trade Unions, which is the largest trade union association, as well as the religious leaders in civil society are working really hard to ensure that the undocumented workers and documented people who are living in South Africa are able to go home at some point and going home to their houses in South Africa, the houses they lived in for many years, for most of them.

I think that's actually the first step forward. There have also been calls from religious leaders, as well as, I think, from some members of the ANC, the African National Congress, that they actually -- and turn to a dialogue, a national dialogue around immigration, because, as has been said to us by Professor Taylor, this is not a new issue in South Africa.

RAY SUAREZ: But why is this not seen as an opportunity, a first step toward getting them out of the country? If they've been seen by working-class and poor South Africans as an irritant, as an affront, and now here's this violence, the next step would seem to be talking about how to send them home. But you're talking about big forces in the society looking for a way to keep them in the country.

ROXANNE LAWSON: I think, because at the core of what South Africa stands for, for many Africans, for many people across the world, is a society of pluralism, of inclusiveness, where people can come and work together.

South Africa itself was forged out of many different populations agreeing to live and work together, to put down arms and build something new and better. And immigrants are a part of that.

They've always been part of South African landscapes, since the very beginning, the earliest days of South Africa, before colonization, when there were just tribes of Africans, ethnic groups migrating across the continent, and that's part of who South Africa is today.

Dissatisfaction with the government

Scott Taylor
Georgetown University
[I]n South Africa, in excess of 40 percent real unemployment, poverty rates ... are so high, joblessness, that, you know, people, their expectations simply have not been met by what there was promised from the post-apartheid era.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, it's been mentioned earlier in the discussion that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the post-apartheid period. Did people expect to be much further down the road toward something better 14 years after the end of apartheid?

SCOTT TAYLOR: Oh, certainly. I think the hope that South Africa, that the ANC, the African National Congress, embodied in the transition, the expectations that the party itself raised about what it could deliver to South Africans, in terms of better living conditions, basic infrastructure provision, and so on, really raised the stakes -- they raised the stakes for themselves by raising expectations so highly.

They have done very well on a number of fronts, in terms of building infrastructure and attacking poverty on a macro level. But it was almost set up to fail in many respects, when you look at some of the statistics of unemployment, for example, in South Africa, in excess of 40 percent real unemployment, poverty rates in these communities and the townships, areas and so on, are so high, joblessness, that, you know, people, their expectations simply have not been met by what there was promised from the post-apartheid era.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, does the government, when it speaks to the people, acknowledge that this is a problem, that they haven't delivered?

ROXANNE LAWSON: I think they do in very, very small ways, but it's not at all -- it doesn't match at all what people actually see on the ground.

And there's been a tremendous pushback from the government, because of things like privatization, which is the process whereby, instead of letting things be owned by many people or by the state and given out by the state, things are owned by corporations, so the privatization of water has happened in South Africa in the last seven years, which has had a tremendously detrimental impact on poor people in townships, whether they're documented workers or undocumented workers or South African nationals.

I think that the government has failed to address these underlying concerns. They've instead given the people of South Africa a neo-liberal, which is a kind of economic model, that's about buying and selling goods, as opposed to actually providing for the will of the people. And I think, for many South Africans, this is actually not the liberation they fought for.

RAY SUAREZ: So where do we go from here? I mean, there's, for instance, the World Cup coming in 2010 in South Africa, welcoming people from all over the world to come see new stadiums and streets that they're assuring people will be safe. Is this going to put a dent, for instance, in that?

ROXANNE LAWSON: I don't think so. I mean, I think one of the things that we haven't talked about as we've been discussing for myself, over the last couple of days, about what's going on in South Africa is the economic and class markings of what's going on.

I think for people who are going to the World Cup, many people who are lucky enough to go to South Africa and see a really wonderful undertaking, they're going to be kind of impervious to the violence around them.

You can go to South Africa today or you could have gone last month before the violence and actually not seen Alexandra, where most of the violence began, not see those townships. You drive by them on your car on the highway, but you're actually not a part of that community.

And so I think that South Africa is aware that this is actually going to dampen for some people their spirits about coming to the games. But at the same time, it's actually not -- on some levels, it's isolated by class more so than by anything else.

Zimbabwe policy an issue

Scott Taylor
Georgetown University
Zimbabweans don't want to go back to Zimbabwe, because in Zimbabwe unemployment is over 80 percent and poverty is over 80 percent, as well.

RAY SUAREZ: President Mbeki has gotten a lot of criticism for not leaning harder on Zimbabwe.

SCOTT TAYLOR: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: This seems to be the convergence of those two problems right in his lap. He can't avoid it.

SCOTT TAYLOR: Well, he certainly has been rightly criticized for his approach to Zimbabwe over the past several years. And now we see this influx of Zimbabweans, which has really been building since at least the crisis in Zimbabwe, which began around 2000.

And Mbeki hasn't dealt with that effectively, according to critics. And I think those criticisms are largely justified.

And so we have this very large Zimbabwean exile community, about a quarter of the Zimbabwean population, perhaps, now residing in South Africa, and they have received, even prior to these events, harsh treatment. The jobs that they have been able to take have been very low-paying jobs, jobs that weren't necessarily desired by South Africans.

They've been at the bottom of the rung, many of them, those who come in at the lower echelons. And so now you've got this confluence of factors, as you say, with the Zimbabwean problem never dealt with.

Zimbabweans don't want to go back to Zimbabwe, because in Zimbabwe unemployment is over 80 percent and poverty is over 80 percent, as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, does this force President Mbeki's hand?

SCOTT TAYLOR: That's a good question, and I'm not sure it's answerable. I think there are a lot of things one would have suspected would have forced President Mbeki's hand on Zimbabwe and they haven't, to date.

My feeling would be that he's going to try to ride this one out, in terms of his approach to Zimbabwe, that it will be much more of the same. And also pending what happens in that country and its elections later in June.

RAY SUAREZ: And so just a couple of months to go in his term?

SCOTT TAYLOR: Mbeki will be in office until next -- around this time next year.

RAY SUAREZ: So a whole year. Guests, thank you very much.

SCOTT TAYLOR: Thank you.

ROXANNE LAWSON: Thank you.