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Living in fear after attacks on migrants in South Africa

In South Africa this year there has been a wave of xenophobic attacks against migrants coming from other parts of Africa. Special correspondent Martin Seemungal looks at roots of the violence and the fear that these foreigners face.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    We turn now to South Africa, where a wave of violence against migrants earlier this year left many victims frightened and the government struggling for a solution to the resurgence of xenophobia, the fear of people from other countries.

    NewsHour special correspondent Martin Seemungal has our report from Durban, South Africa.

  • A warning:

    Some of the images in this story may be disturbing.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Six dead, hundreds injured, 5,000 migrants forced to seek refuge in hastily organized camps, all due to a wave of anti-foreigner violence in South Africa.

    Police have watched over this refugee camp for immigrants for two months, guarding people who came here for safety, being told now it is time to return home.

    Anicet Bigirimana is from Burundi. He says the attack on his family was sudden and extremely violent.

  • ANICET BIGIRIMANA, Migrant:

    The first time they came, they put — they took my son. They put him — a tire in the petrol. They almost burned him. But today — there's another neighbor who grip him from their hands. That's how they started.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    This Somali immigrant running for his life from a group of South Africans also survived, this attack, one of many in April, part of a wave of xenophobic attacks against other Africans living and working here.

    According to official statistics, there are just over two million immigrants in South Africa, and somewhere between 500,000 and one million are undocumented. The worst violence was in the Durban area. Parts of downtown became battle zones, as migrants fought back.

    It appeared to be part of a systematic campaign against people from African countries, in particular Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Congo, and Malawi, but there is no clear indication who was responsible for organizing the attacks.

    Chris Van Den Berg is a city councilman for a district in Durban that includes a number of villages in the surrounding hills.

  • CHRIS VAN DEN BERG, City Councillor, Durban:

    There was a group about 80-odd plus, people with bangers and bush knives, telling people very clearly that they could not be here Sunday morning, that they were going to be — they were either going to be killed or attacked.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Anti-immigrant feelings also spread to Johannesburg. There were large angry demonstrations against foreigners, met by police using volleys of bird shot.

    South Africa's government condemned the attacks, the country's home affairs minister, Malusi Gigaba, promising strong action against the perpetrators.

    MALUSI GIGABA, Minister of Home Affairs, South Africa: The government reiterates that attacks on any fellow human beings and destruction of property, as well as looting, are criminal offenses and will not be tolerated.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Three hundred and seven people were arrested. So far, there have been no convictions. There is a painful irony to what has happened to these people. Many of them fled their home countries to escape conflict. And so they are shocked at what has happened to them here in South Africa, driven from homes and businesses built after years of hard work, forced into temporary shelters, crowded tents, surviving on food provided by the government and relief agencies.

    Kabanga Kaji has lived in this camp in Durban for several weeks. She has four children.

  • KABANGA KAJI, Migrant:

    The life here is miserable. The way you live — and you can see it yourself — we live here like animals. You can see — or the way we sleep in the place where we sleep in is not good.

  • WOMAN:

    I used to think that South Africa is a good country. And now I think South Africa is a bad country, because they're killing us for no reason.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Many blame a speech by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini for attacks. Zwelithini is the eighth monarch of the Zulu Nation, the largest ethnic group in South Africa.

    Earlier this year, Zwelithini harshly criticized migrants living in South Africa, especially the small businesses run by foreigners. He ended his speech with a call for them to pack their bags. The king maintains his remarks were taken out of context.

    Xenophobic attacks are not new to South Africa. In 2008, attacks on foreigners led to more fatalities; 67 people were killed around Johannesburg.

    Jean Pierre Misago, a Burundian, is a researcher at the African Center for Migration at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He says the violence didn't come as a surprise.

    JEAN PIERRE MISAGO, University of Witwatersrand: After 2008, there were political pronouncements and promises of never again. But, to be honest, our research continuously showed that there were no concrete measures to prevent violence from happening again.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    The killing of Mozambican Emmanuel Sithole was captured in a series of chilling pictures by a photographer with South Africa's Sunday Times, James Oatway.

  • JAMES OATWAY, Sunday Times:

    They were angry and — yes, they were angry and they were full of hate. The expression on their faces, they weren't going to be satisfied with anything but killing Emmanuel. That was the one thing I could tell.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    The attack lasted just 28 second and then stopped. The men fled. Sithole was still alive, still conscious. Oatway rushed him to hospital in a car, but it was too late.

  • JAMES OATWAY:

    I don't really have any regrets about my actions taking pictures of the attack. I think I did what I could. And I think my being there was an intervention of sorts. I suppose my only regret really is that we didn't get Emmanuel to a hospital quickly enough for his life to be saved.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Alexandria is one of the poorest places in South Africa. Many migrants live here because it is affordable and there is a perception among South Africans here that immigrants are taking their jobs.

  • JEAN PIERRE MISAGO:

    Many people have tried to like explain it through poverty and unemployment, but those are not really the only — the key factors or the only factor that can explain the violence, because if they did, we would see violence everywhere where there is poverty.

    And, overall, you can actually frame xenophobic violence as a governance issue, because we have evidence that, where community leadership doesn't want it to happen, it doesn't.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    When South Africa's security forces escalated operations and visibility against the attackers, the violence subsided.

    There have been recent demonstrations against xenophobia, but thousands of migrants had already made the decision to leave, returning home to Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique. For the immigrants who stayed, the government is determined to reintegrate them back into the communities they were driven out of.

    Irene Carisa is back in the apartment she shares with other African immigrants in Durban.

    "I am really worried," she says, "given what happened, but we have been told the government and the police will protect us."

    But she is afraid every time she goes outside, and told us she was recently beaten when she was at the market.

    Kabanga Kaji is deeply worried as well.

  • KABANGA KAJI:

    What's going to go on to me that, if I go, they say it is going to happen again. If they save my life two times, what about the third one? Maybe I will die.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    It is a frightening prospect for these survivors, not knowing if the xenophobic rage that cost so many lives will return again.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Martin Seemungal in Durban, South Africa.

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