When the whistle was blown to signal the end of the World Cup Spain were euphoric, the Dutch trudged off the Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium deflated, all emotion drained away; but for millions of African foreign nationals it was like the blast of the horn that announces the beginning of a xenophobic Armageddon.
In preparation of this threat of renewed xenophobic violence that has been hovering menacingly in the air for months, thousands of Zimbabwean immigrants have been sending their belongings back home; and-those who have decided to brave it- working out ways to protect themselves.
But on Thursday last week the police minister Nathi Mthethwa dismissed these anxieties as baseless and nothing more than rumour-mongering. “So far what we are dealing with are rumours people have… spread that are fuelling a hysteria of a possible outbreak,” he reportedly said.
Xenophobia, especially against African foreigners, has become a recurrent problem in South Africa. In May 2008, 62 migrants were killed in an orgy of violence that left about 100 000 people homeless.
When I visited the Park Station area in central Johannesburg on Thursday, it was bustling, as usual. Porters were moving various wares in their trolleys, while vendors hawked fruits and other snacks; several buses puffed away, heaving from the weight of hill-like loads perched at the top of the coaches. “It’s rather quiet,” said a vendor who sells cigarettes, fruits and snacks, referring to the threat of xenophobia around the Park Station area.
“They don’t threaten me at all,” she said. The middle aged woman lives in Parktown, close to the densely populated Hillbrow- an area inhabited by foreigners. Those whose homes are in the inner city, she explained, are never as threatened as those live in the outlying townships like Thembisa, Thokoza and Alexander, sites of some of the worst violence in 2008.
A porter, who refused to be identified, said in the past weeks there had been a marked improvement in business. “Normally I make R120-00 a day , but these past few weeks I am making as much as R350-00, at times even R400-00,” he said. “People are scared of the xenophobia,” the Bulawayo-born porter said, “they are not taking chances and they are moving their furniture to Zimbabwe”.
A Chegutu-born boiler maker- who wouldn’t identify himself- said he doesn’t keep any of his belongings in his Krugersdorp one room apartment. “When I buy something, I send it home. The only thing I have here is my computer. Even the bed I use belongs to my Tswana landlady,” said the man who moved to Johannesburg in 2008, after the violence that made headlines around the world. Around us, bicycles- not new- couches, and other household furniture, were waiting to be loaded onto a Munenzwa coach on its way to Zimbabwe.
Lucky Nkomo, a South African-born entrepreneur, who has a bakkie that he hires out to a mostly Zimbabwean clientele, said: “people are going away in droves,” adding, “but it’s difficult to know whether movement is because of the threat or it’s because of the usual business.”
Nkomo, whose father was born in Zimbabwe, said: “I don’t take it seriously. Where am I supposed to go? I was born here.” He was, however, prepared for any eventualities. “Whoever comes to me rough will get it rough. If you come to me with violent intentions you should be ready for whatever could happen to you,” he said, further explaining that most of those involved in the violence were criminals taking advantage of the climate of xenophobia for their own ends. “This is not xenophobia; this is stealing. No one should be able to come and bother other people in their own spaces,” he said, pointing to the absurdity of putting up a notice to say you would assault a certain group of people. “We expect the cops to do their jobs.”
Tara Polzer, a researcher at Wits University’s Forced Migration Studies, said government departments, civil society groups and community forums have mobilised against the threat.
“The level of threat was, however, high and some foreign nationals were leaving,” she said in her office at Wits University. She said it was dispiriting how people, with limited opportunities and financial resources, were taking grave decisions- abandoning their livelihoods and their homes.
Whether or not the actual violence happens is beside the point, she said, it’s bad enough that the atmosphere is threatening for foreign nationals to consider leaving. “That is a form of violence, ” she insisted.
The researcher said the media should watch how they use language. “The use of the word ‘erupt’ suggests that this is natural. It’s not like it’s a volcano or earthquake.” She said local businessmen-some of them uncompetitive- some councilors and community leaders were inciting people to see foreign nationals as threats; but other community leaders were preaching tolerance.
The trade union movement, Cosatu and its affiliate unions, have been shrill in their condemnation of the threat.
On Friday, the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) released a statement in which they condemned the “unfortunate, un-African and the wayward implications of such narrow tendencies may have in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood in Africa and the rest of the world”.
The eyes of the rest of the world, for a month taking in the football spectacle South Africa successfully hosted, may be about to witness another ugly spectacle.