Monday, July 27, 2009

South Africans Alert For Anti-Immigrant Violence

PRETORIA, South Africa 24 July 2009 Sapa-AP


Some of the shack dwellers of Jeffsville recently had an idea:
Why not stage a march to demand government housing some had been awaiting for 18 years?

Community leader Ernest Tshavhuyo, though, feared an angry march
could mean trouble in the Pretoria-area squatter camp.

Protests scattered across South Africa in 2008 began as
demonstrations against lack of change for the poorest of the poor,
but soon foreigners were being attacked in shack settlements and
other desperate communities, leaving 70 people dead by the time the violence ended several weeks later. At least two people in
Jeffsville were killed.

Now, as a new round of protests have sprung, South Africans are
worried about how to avoid a repeat of the horrific violence.

They might learn from people like Tshavhuyo.

The 43-year-old former factory worker persuaded his neighbors to
stay home and give him three weeks to set up a meeting with
Pretoria, at which he and a small group from Jeffsville would
present their concerns peacefully.

"We said, `What is the purpose of marching?"' Tshavhuyo said in
an interview Friday, describing the community meeting the day
before. "Our community needs education. Some, they don't even know the meaning of democracy."

The most recent unrest has included protests that deteriorated
into rioting in eastern South Africa, with foreigners' businesses
looted and police firing rubber bullets. In another protest, in the
Indian Ocean port of Durban, protesters complaining of high food
prices invaded supermarkets and ate food from the shelves.

The incidents have put South Africa's ANC-led government under
pressure. In an editorial this week, the Johannesburg newspaper The Times called new protests "disturbing warnings that a full-scale
outbreak of xenophobic violence is not far away."

The ANC is desperate to avoid the kind of violence that hit last
year, when images broadcast around the world - including some from Jeffsville of residents burning shacks where Zimbabweans,
Malawians, Somalis and other foreigners had lived and worked -
exposed deep anti-foreigner sentiment in South Africa.

Zuma's party released a statement Thursday promising "to listen
and find solutions to people's concerns" and condemning looting and attacks on foreigners "under the guise of `service delivery
protests"' against the government.

If Jeffsville is any model, such pronouncements and promises
won't be enough. In this squatter camp, it took commitment from
people like Tshavhuyo to bring calm last year, and he and his
colleagues say they have to be constantly on alert.

Tshavhuyo said soon after last year's violence erupted, he sat
with like-minded neighbors in the bare shed that is the
headquarters of the camp's community organization. They wrote a
letter to a city official asking for help. Within days, a meeting
had been arranged at which the attacks on foreigners were denounced and, Tshavhuyo said, those who had led the violence backed down after seeing the community was against them.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation, Mandela's headquarters since he
retired from politics in 1999, had been looking for ways to address
the anti-foreigner violence. Impressed with Jeffsville's efforts,
the foundation helped organize another community meeting in June,
at which Tshavhuyo, who has been unemployed for six years, rose to
offer an apology to foreigners on behalf of the settlement's South

"We are responsible as citizens to make sure we behave in a way
that promotes peace," said Mothomang Diaho of the Nelson Mandela
Foundation. "There needs to be a lot of self-reflection."

South Africans know wariness of foreigners is common around the
world, but worry their xenophobia is particularly virulent, perhaps
a result of the isolation created by apartheid, or because the
institutionalized racism of the past has left even black South
Africans suspicious of black foreigners.

"The healing, it needs to take place among ourselves," said
Tshavhuyo, who apologized in public again on Mandela's birthday
July 18, when a reconciliation ceremony was held under a tent on a
sports ground on the edge of Jeffsville.

Abdul Hassam, a native of Somalia who owns several small shops
in Jeffsville, slaughtered a cow for the ceremony, to show he had
accepted Tshavhuyo's apology.

Friday, Tshavhuyo and Hassam greeted eac other with a warm,
complicated handshake. Hassam, heads of the Somali Association of South Africa, said some of his countrymen left South Africa
following last year's violence. He considered leaving as well, but
instead has rebuilt his Jeffsville businesses and devoted himself
to reconciliation.

"We are very grateful to the community of Jeffsville - they have
stood by us," said Hassam, 42, who fled his war-ravaged homeland 11 years ago. "We are trying our best to see to it there are no more
attacks on foreigners."

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