Fear, anxiety as politicians dither

South African Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini
The continued hesitation by Sadc leaders to find a solution to xenophobia has the potential to scuttle Sadc regional integration as key regional nations remain on a collision course over the matter

Johannesburg — As the clock ticks towards midnight, Saliwe’s mother gives the last instructions to her daughter on how to detect any suspicious activity outside.


Before she lays her head to sleep, she utters one last reminder: “Wake your sister up at 3am so that I can take over.”

Since the xenophobic attacks started in Durban and eventually spread to Johannesburg, Saliwe — who lives with her mother and two siblings in the little settlement of Tshakane, some 50km outside Jo’burg — and her family have been spending most nights awake, taking turns to watch and alert the whole family in the event of a night-time attack by South Africans targeting foreigners.

Saliwe is nine and her sisters are aged 12 and 15. They have all been actively participating in the night watch. In the event of any form of attack, they have stuffed in a corner three backpacks containing a few clothes, some nonperishables and water — that is all they are prepared to take out in the event of the attacks coming to their area.

But neatly laid out in the single room they all use as the kitchen, bedroom and living room, are modest household items that include a relatively new double-door refrigerator, four-plate cooker, kitchen cabinet, an LED television set and the imposing bed.

“It took me years to work for this property and although it is not much, I am proud of having achieved this in an honest way,” says Mai Saliwe as she shakes her head and looks sideways, briefly closing her eyes as she does so, as if to stop tears from streaming down her cheeks.

“But when the worst happens, we are prepared to leave everything and go back to Zimbabwe the way we came, empty-handed; because nothing is worth our lives.”

No trust

Next door to them are South Africans.

“They are good friends and we help each other just as neighbours normally do, but in these times you can never trust anyone. They may not be the ones to attack us, but they could simply tell the attackers about our presence here,” she said.

“We have even limited our movement in the area. We only go to buy our food at the nearby mall and when I am at work, my daughters stay indoors as soon as they return from school. You cannot trust anyone.”

The fear and anxiety that has been a part of Mai Saliwe’s life for the past month is what many foreign nationals live through in townships of South Africa as the government’s lukewarm attempts to address the crisis has continually come under attack from various government and human rights bodies.

But while other nations have been vehemently calling for the return of their citizens, the situation is sadly different for Zimbabwe as the country is currently going through an unabated economic meltdown.

Despite efforts which have so far ensured a safe return of about 700 citizens to Zimbabwe, the situation remains dire for the rest, who are estimated to be nearing a million.

Going home is not an option for many as they are in the proverbial dilemma of a cigarette which burns on one end while on the other it is firmly pressed between the smoker’s lips.

“Sometimes I think deeply about just packing all our things and going back to Zimbabwe, but with the depressing stories of job losses and a worsening economy, I can only hope the xenophobic attacks end so I can resume working normally and continue to feed my children,” says Saliwe’s mother.

Their hope, like many Zimbabweans who have fled President Robert Mugabe’s poor economic policies and others on political asylum, is that the South African government follows to the letter its Constitution and international conventions on foreigners’ rights.

Sadly, South African President Jacob Zuma and Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, whose anti-foreigners statements in March allegedly contributed to the attacks, seem not keen on helping the situation.

Sunday Independent editor Jovial Rantao, analysing Zwelithini’s “peace rally” where the royal strongman was forced to call for peace after initially urging all foreigners to pack their bags, wrote: “He did call for peace and asked his subjects to protect foreigners. However, he continued to deny his speech had been one big act of incitement.”

Rantao said the king was getting away with it because of the huge following he has, which is of great political value.

“If Zwelithini, king of the Zulus, were like King Dalindyebo of the amaMpondo and not politically important to the ruling party, there would be no double standards. He would have been castigated and held accountable for his speech of hate.”

Chapter 16 in the Bill or Rights of the South African Constitution criminalises hate speech. In an address to mark South Africa’s Freedom Day, Zuma — who until recently has not openly admitted the attacks were xenophobic — instead accused African governments of contributing to xenophobic attacks.

“As much as we have a problem that is alleged to be xenophobic, our sister countries contribute to this. Why are their citizens not in their countries and are in South Africa?” he asked.

This came as the Nigerian government recalled its ambassador to South Africa in protest at the xenophobic violence, in what appears to be a fresh diplomatic war in Africa.

Ironically, as Zuma made his address, South African police and army officers were conducting a stop and search operation to pluck out illegal immigrants in Hillbrow and an eyewitness told The Daily Maverick that staff at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital did not want to treat a foreigner he had brought there, in what was seen as much broader institutionalised xenophobia.

Watch Zimbabwean musicians sing against Xenophobia

Sadc and the African Union, under the stewardship of 91-year-old Mugabe, has come under criticism for its slow response to the crisis with many analysts pointing to Mugabe’s cosy relations with Zuma as the reason.

Mugabe, who at the time of the attacks was globe-trotting, only made an official statement condemning the xenophobic attacks during Zimbabwe’s Independence Day commemorations on April 18, nearly three weeks into the attacks.

The continued hesitation by Sadc leaders to find a solution to xenophobia has the potential to scuttle Sadc regional integration as key regional nations remain on a collision course over the matter.

Sadc is currently working on regional economic integration under the Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan

As Sadc and African leaders continue to shilly-shally over the solution to ending xenophobic violence, Saliwe’s mother sits on one corner of the bed, looking out through a window as she narrates the chilling incident of an alleged threat her daughter received from a schoolmate.

“Saliwe said an older boy at her school approached her and said he could dip his hands into her private parts and nothing would happen to him because she was a ‘kwerekwere’,” she said.

She did not report the case to the school authorities.

With no-one prepared to guarantee their safety, another day is a nightmare.

Watch churches in Zimbabwe pray against Xenophobia


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