Foreigners brave an uneasy refuge in SA
Immigrants to South Africa still face an uphill battle, but their neighbours seem happy to live and let live.
A dark-skinned Mozambican man, Dovel Chatlago (24), dusts off the plastic chairs inside the tin shack from which he runs his salon. It is in Brazzaville, the craggy informal settlement near Atteridgeville township, about 15km west of Pretoria.
The place made headlines in May 2008 after a mob stoned and burnt to death a Mozambican, Abraham Msimango (28), who was a tuck shop owner. Sixty-two people died during that year’s xenophobic attacks, recorded as the worst since the dawn of democracy.
Other informal settlements affected included Ramaphosa in Ekurhuleni, Alexandra, Diepsloot and Masiphumelele township in the Western Cape. Last year, the shops of Pakistanis and Somalis were looted during service delivery protests in Brazzaville.
Chatlago says the looting “was not a serious xenophobic attack compared to the one [he] saw on TV in 2008”.
He was still in Mozambique then, but the violence didn’t deter him from making his way to South Africa the following year.
“I was scared when I saw a man being burnt on TV but to me South Africa is the only country in Africa where I could make ends meet,” he says.
He has been watching a gospel music video from an old black television set placed on the wooden table where there is also a cracked mirror and some hair products.
Chatlago says he often hears local people making remarks such as “Mandela is dead – you now have to return to your home country.”
Msimango’s one-time home is located in the hilly section of Brazzaville, called XP. The gravel road leading there is inaccessible, covered with rocks.
Timothy Mlambo, a burly man wearing a vest, a dark pair of trousers and slippers, is the new owner of the place.
Behind a counter, inside a corrugated-iron tuck shop, he sells sweets to a young boy. The shop is stocked with groceries such as canned fish, vegetables, mealies and sweets.
Mlambo is also from Mozambique, but he didn’t know Msimango personally. He knows his relatives in Tembisa, who sold him the place.
Immigrants queue for days for permits outside a home affairs office in Pretoria. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)
In 1962 he boarded a train with his brother in Maputo to South Africa for “greener pastures”. Some locals still discriminate against him because he is “a foreigner”.
“South Africa is a good place to be,” he says. “The problem is with the community who mistreats us foreigners.”
Olga Lamola, the late Msimango’s wife, has since relocated to Diepsloot because she couldn’t stay in a place where her husband was “mercilessly killed”.
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian on the phone, she says: “I would not like to relive the horrific incident of that day. He was the father of my child. I am still traumatised by what happened and I don’t want to undergo another counselling.”
Many locals say they now live at peace with foreigners.
A short and light-skinned woman, Martilda Mofokeng (26), was Msimango’s neighbour. She is removing clothes from a washing line outside her shack. Gold glistens in her teeth as she speaks.
“We are living in harmony,” she says. “We no longer discriminate against them.”
The metal door of a shack on the other side of the dusty street is half-open. This is home to Marcus Mogobo (38), who has been living there since 2002. “According to me, we are living at peace with them. We have no problem with them at all,” he says.
In Braamfontein, Johannesburg, an Ivorian, Adessomin Dosso (50), dressed in a blue tracksuit top with his name on it, says: “The tension between South Africans and foreigners didn’t start in 2008.”
He recalls that after the 1994 elections a “fight broke out between the Senegalese and the locals in Berea and Yeoville. The Senegal president was forced to send a plane to come and pick [up] his people, but they refused to leave.”
An activist for a co-ordinating body for refugees and migrant communities, with 250 000 members in South Africa, Dosso came here in December 1994 because of political pressure back home.
“South Africa has been the right platform for us to express ourselves,” he says. “Even if there are still some human rights-related issues, the way we express ourselves in this country, it would be impossible to do so in our home countries.”
He was granted citizenship in 2011, he has two South African-born children. He is thankful for the democratic government’s efforts, as shown by the Refugees Act of 1998. “Our committee worked hard to contribute to the legislation. Even if they didn’t accept some of our recommendations, they didn’t shut us out altogether.”
A 2008 report by the Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand notes that the “xenophobic violence has been an ongoing reality in post-1994 South Africa”.
In 2003 more than 100 people were killed in xenophobia-related incidents, according to Dr Loren Landau of the Wits programme.
He says foreigners are vulnerable because most of them are living in shops in townships, which are not safe.
He says the government is not doing enough to curb xenophobic attacks. To deal with the problem, he suggests, the state needs “to recognise that this not just petty criminality”.
Landau says the state also needs “to look at proper investigation and acknowledge that even its own people, like councillors and police, are somehow involved”. Local councillors jostling for power and popularity often use people on the ground to achieve their goals, he adds.
In Pretoria north, a Nigerian, Cyprian Mbaso (40), in his grey traditional regalia, relates how he was beaten viciously by a group of about 100 people armed with sticks, bricks and iron rods on April 3 2014.
When he saw his attackers approaching his nappies store in Brown Street, he tried to flee. But they pelted him with bricks and stones until he stumbled and fell on the tar road. Lying on the ground, struggling to stand up, he was walloped with sticks and other weapons until he lost consciousness. He bled profusely and one of his teeth was broken.
He says the group claimed to be looking for Nigerians selling the drug nyaope. “No one in the street thought I would wake up alive,” he says. “I was in a coma and woke up in the hospital bed at MediClinic.”
He shows me his patient file, which describes how he was treated for “a headache, dizziness, pains all over his body, injuries on the back and shoulder, bleeding on head and mouth”.
He has three stitches: one on the head and two on the upper lip. He says his whole body is still in pain from the beatings. “When I remember what happened on that day I shed tears,” he says, his eyes glimmering.
He was robbed of two phones, he says, as well as R9 000, an international driver’s licence and wallet. After three days he was discharged from the hospital and went to Pretoria Central police station to open a case of assault and theft.
“In Nigeria, I own a downtown hotel,” says this father of a three-year-old daughter born of a South African mother.
“I came to South Africa to start a small business, but I don’t like the way the people here treat foreigners. I think it is bad to invest in South Africa. I was thinking that there is law here.”
A few shops away from Mbaso’s, there is a rundown nightclub owned by his brother Richmond Mbaso (39). He was also a victim of vicious attacks. He shows me his damaged office door, and the broken gate at his club. He says five of his flat-screen televisions were taken away and one was smashed.
He was at the club on that day but left after he was alerted by his elder brother that the locals were on the rampage, attacking foreigners. He drove to Sunnyside, on the other side of the city, to hide himself. At his hiding place, he got a call from an acquaintance to say his brother had been beaten badly and had fainted.
“I drove back to the scene and from a distance I spotted some locals looting goods like beers, sound systems and flat-screen televisions from my club,” he says.
He has been in the country for 19 years. “In 2007 I came across something like this, but a taxi driver I befriended helped me to keep the attackers at bay,” he says.
During the May 2008 xenophobic attacks, he wasn’t one of the victims. “This is my first bad experience,” he says.
“I feel betrayed because I feel like part of this community,” he says. “In my businesses, I employ 15 locals. But at least most South Africans who are my patrons came to sympathise with me.”