Eyewitness News (EWN) describes how the violence between South Africans and foreigners is believed to have been initiated by King Goodwill Zwelithini, the reigning monarch of the Zulu nation. It is suspected that his call for foreigners to leave South Africa exacerbated violence between the people.

In an exclusive interview with Perdeby, a Malawian national, Michael*, describes his experiences during the xenophobic turmoil, what persisted in returning to the crisis-stricken area of Malvern, and why he chose to remain in South Africa.

Michael has been living in South Africa for nearly 10 years. He works in construction, painting, plumbing, gardening and almost any other handiwork. “I [would] like to call myself a ‘jack of all trades’,” he says. An educated and intellectual individual, Michael remembers coming to South Africa in search of work. “I came to South Africa because there were more opportunities for me here than in Malawi.” Michael started a family in South Africa when he married a fellow Malawian and had a child, who is now seven-years-old. He experienced the xenophobic outbreak in 2008 and describes how he predicted that last month’s situation would spread to his area. “When I heard of the violence in Kwa-Zulu Natal, I knew it would come to Malvern.”

Furthermore, Michael describes how attacks on foreigners started with the looting of foreign-owned shops. “The thing is, it is more convenient for us to walk two minutes to the spaza shop than to walk 20 minutes to the Spar.” In contrast to reports stating that foreign-owned shops sell merchandise cheaper than South African shops, Michael believes otherwise. He argues that although foreign-owned shops are more expensive, they are closer to the people. “I would rather buy a can of [Coca-Cola] for R12 at the spaza shop than walk all the way to Spar  to buy it for R8.” Michael also argues that it is safer to buy from these foreign-owned shops as the route to Spar is dangerous. This leads to the violent retaliation of locals towards the foreign-owned shops.

Moreover, Michael describes how he initially dealt with the xenophobic flare-up in his area. “If you [do not] show off that you are a foreigner and if you get on with your day, the locals will not bother you,” he says. However, in the week of 13 April 2015 tensions started rising in Michael’s area. Michael’s employer requested that he and his family stay on his employer’s property upon hearing about the escalation of the attacks in Johannesburg. “I said I would be fine for that night but would come stay at her place on the Thursday night.” On the Wednesday night, Michael describes how he was awoken by infuriated locals who were “banging on [his] door” and threatening him and his family. “My wife and son ran to hide under the table in the kitchen, and I went to [collect] as much [of our] clothes and belongings as I could.” It was only after 40 minutes that the tormenting of the locals ended. The police presence in the area seemed to calm the situation. The following day, Michael and his family went to stay with his employer. They stayed there until the following Monday. “I was lucky that my family and I [did not] have to stay at the police station in Malvern.” He explains how the station was overcrowded and that many foreigners seeking refuge within the station still feared the locals who stood just metres from the station. Michael describes how he and his family “left in time” and that they were able to take most of their belongings along with them. “Some people in my area had to leave everything to run for their lives … at least we had something with us.”

Upon returning to Malvern, Michael describes how there was a police presence in his area and a sense of calm remained. “My son had to return to school so we had to go back.” Michael describes how “everything was back to normal”. In regard to this, Michael believes that an “underlying force” sparked tensions between locals and foreigners. “The people in townships [cannot] one day wake up and decide to fight against us foreigners,” he says. He argues that a group of people had instigated the violence between locals and foreigners, saying, “This group of people wanted to show that the South African government is unable to control the country … they wanted to create unrest in South Africa.” This agrees with minister of state security David Mahlobo’s interview with EWN’s Govan Whittles. The minister spoke about how he knows of individuals who are “instigators in … various communities”. The minister spoke of issues which are all inter-related with one  another: “The attacks on foreign nationals … the issues of defacing statues [and] land invasions … [are] becoming coordinated,” he said. The minister further spoke about how the government is “keeping [its] eyes wide open” on these issues.

Moreover, when questioned on whether or not he trusts the police in keeping him and his family safe, Michael responds by saying, “I do trust the police, but sometimes they arrive late to sort out the problem.” Michael describes how upon his return many foreigners had left to return to their countries of origin, yet some foreigners still remained within his area. “I did not consider going back home.” He describes a difference in lifestyles in South Africa and Malawi to be a reason for not returning home. “I have been here for a long time now. I [cannot] pick up everything to start a new life in Malawi.” He also spoke about he is established in South Africa and how it would be difficult to find the same work in Malawi.

Romola Adeola from the Centre for Human Rights (CHR) at UP emphasises the government’s responsibility in implementing “effective, population-sensitive strategies” in order to realise socio-economic rights of South Africans. She says that “pragmatic policies” need to be developed in order to address inequalities rooted in the past, tackle corruption and “move the nation forward”. “South Africa has an obligation to protect the rights of all persons within its jurisdiction”, Adeola says. This includes foreign nationals. She describes how South Africa possesses the moral imperative to “foster social cohesion [and] development”, thus improving the living conditions of all African people. In identifying the South African government’s condemnation of the xenophobic attacks, Adeola argues that a future xenophobic crisis may not be ruled out if “long term preventative measures” are not taken into account. “One such … measure is awareness-raising on the rights of non-nationals”, she states.

The spirit of ubuntu and togetherness and its meaning in the context of xenophobia should be an area of focus. Adeola argues that the government must highlight positive and effective contributions which foreigners have made to the country, as well as further educate the relevant government departments about the underlying values of South Africa’s constitution: “respect [for] human dignity, equality and freedom”. The CHR strongly believes that “silence by those whose voices matter” only contributes to a society that is oblivious to the catastrophic consequences of xenophobia. “It is equally important for all South Africans to say ‘No’ to xenophobia,” both in words and deeds, urges Adeola.

*The individual’s name has been changed in order to protect his identity.

Photo:  Kirsty Mackay

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