Migrants flee South Africa as anti-foreigner hostility worsens

Residents listen to community leaders speaking during a protest against the rise of crime in the area in Diepsloot, South Africa, on April 6.GUILLEM SARTORIO/AFP/Getty Images

When he heard the latest rumors of violence, Bernard Chigumbu knew it was time to go. His neighbors were warning ominously that his name was already being discussed by anti-foreigner gangs. He packed up, left his shack near Johannesburg, and took the bus north to Zimbabwe.

The first killing was reported last Wednesday, barely a month after his departure. A mob marched through the streets of a Johannesburg township, Diepsloot, and ordered its residents to produce their identity documents. They descended on another Zimbabwean migrant, a man named Elvis Nyathi, and demanded money from him. Then they beat him brutally with a golf club and burned him to death on the street.

Many people had been predicting the bloodshed. A rising tide of anti-immigrant rhetoric in South Africa, fueled by record high unemployment and a stagnant economy, is challenging the country’s traditional politics and triggering a wave of raids on African migrants in their homes and shops.

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South Africa has suffered sporadic cycles of anti-foreigner violence in the past – Mr. Chigumbu himself had narrowly escaped a lynching by an enraged mob in 2017 – but the difference this time is the increasingly hostile language and policies of mainstream politicians and community leaders. Newly introduced laws would restrict migrants from some jobs and programs. And South Africa’s police have allowed vigilante groups to roam across neighborhoods in a hunt for undocumented foreigners.

The story of Mr. Chigumbu, a 31-year-old Zimbabwean, is typical of vast numbers of migrants in his home country. After graduating from high school, his parents were too poor to pay for university fees, so he moved to Johannesburg to try to earn money for his education. For the past eight years, he has survived on part-time jobs as a gardener and construction worker for as little as $7 a day.

“I was one of the foreigners who accepted low pay because I was desperate,” he told The Globe and Mail. “Many South Africans hated us. They even threatened to kill us.”

Five years ago, he nearly suffered the same fate as Mr. Nyathi. A mob of people carrying axes and sticks surrounded his shack in Thokoza, a township near Johannesburg. They shouted that he was taking jobs from South Africans and did not deserve to live. As he screamed for help, the mob threw rubber tires around his neck, preparing to set them on fire with a can of gas. His life was spared at the last moment when an elderly neighbor pleaded with the mob to leave him alone.

When the latest anti-foreigner rhetoric became louder in recent months, Mr. Chigumbu’s neighbors urged him to find a safer place to live. He knew the economy was much worse in Zimbabwe, but he felt that his only option was to return home. When he boarded the bus to Zimbabwe, he heard other passengers talking about their fears of violence. Now he works as an illegal money-changer in Harare, dodging the Zimbabwean police to survive.

“I felt sad and ashamed to have gone home empty-handed,” he said. “I only managed to earn enough money for my rent and food and a few groceries to send to my relatives back home.”

Despite the rising dangers of anti-foreigner violence, many migrants have made the agonizing decision to stay in South Africa.

“I don’t want to live in South Africa much longer, but for now I don’t have any choice because I have nothing to support me economically,” said Agrippa Tigere, a 36-year-old Zimbabwean who works as a painter and floor-tile installer.

He returned briefly to his home country this month to bury his uncle, who was stabbed to death by thieves near their Johannesburg home. At a bus terminal in Harare, where he was waiting for a bus back to South Africa, he described the hostility that he encountered. “There’s so much noise against foreigners now,” he said.

“Most South Africans don’t want Zimbabweans in their country. They say we are too many and we are doing crime. But I will endure it for now.”

With unemployment in South Africa climbing to an historic high of 35.3 per cent last month, a growing number of politicians are demanding a crackdown on what they call “illegal foreigners” – although many migrants and asylum-seekers are unable to obtain identity documents to legalize their status because of massive backlogs and bureaucratic mismanagement at South Africa’s home affairs department.

Some political parties, including some with seats on municipal councils, have demanded that immigrants be sacked from jobs in city administrations. Others have raided restaurants to check the nationality of their employees, or have accused foreigners of clogging hospitals and preventing South Africans from getting treatment.

Their claims have often been proven wrong, but the political mood has triggered a crackdown on foreigners. Police have arrested hundreds of migrants in township raids. Video clips have shown the police using a notorious language test – ordering people to say the word “elbow” in local languages ​​- to check on their identity. Critics have compared it to the “pass laws” of the apartheid era, when the police required black South Africans to carry documents to authorize their movements.

Police have allowed vigilante groups, including military veterans and a new group called Operation Dudula, to march through townships and demand documents from shopkeepers and street vendors, sometimes vandalizing their property or ordering them closed if they are foreign-owned.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, in an open letter on Monday, warned South Africans that the vigilante actions against foreigners were beginning to resemble the behavior of apartheid police.

“We have seen people being stopped on the street by private citizens and being forced to produce identification to verify their immigration status,” Mr. Ramaphosa said.

“We have seen people being attacked, hurt or even killed because of how they looked or because they have a particular accent,” he said.

“This was how the apartheid oppressors operated. … Attacking those we suspect of doing wrong merely because they are a foreign national is not an act of patriotism. It is immoral, racist and criminal. In the end, it will lead to xenophobia.”

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