Days before another wave of xenophobia started in November last year, rumours were flying that South Africans no longer wanted foreigners to live in the townships around picturesque De Doorns in the Hex River Valley, recalls Yusufu Adam, a 35-year-old accountant from Harare in Zimbabwe.
“I just didn’t believe the rumours,” says Adam, shaking his head. Under his jaunty peak cap, his eyes mist up as he relives the trauma. “We were all living happily together. But it was our neighbours who attacked us. My landlord looted my goods and snatched my cellphone.”
Adam was renting a backroom in a house in Stofland township when foreigners were attacked and driven out of their homes. An estimated 3 000 foreigners, mostly Zimbabweans, were forced out of the Stofland and Ekuphumleni townships, in a horrifying resurgence of the xenophobic attacks that made headlines in 2008.
Seven months later he still fears for the safety of his wife, Aliyah, and three young children in the De Doorns safety camp. And now Adam and the rest of the refugees have heard the rumours that they must leave the country before the end of the 2010 World Cup and this time they are paying attention.
The number of refugees at the De Doorns camp has dwindled to around 280, as many have taken up the offer from the Western Cape provincial government and the International Organisation for Migration for free repatriation to their homeland. Those who remain are mostly political refugees who cannot return to Zimbabwe.
Situated on a dusty sports field, the camp is surrounded by high fences and barbed wire and looks like a post-apocalyptic landscape. Tunnel tents have been erected by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and when people leave their tents are taken down as the provincial government is trying to shut down the camp. There are no food supplies coming in and the grape-picking work on the farms in the area has dried up.
Adam, a member of the Movement for Democratic Change who fled from Zanu-PF “thugs”, said it is too dangerous for his family to return home. His friend offers an explanation. “Yusef could choose between a long or short sleeve when they wanted to chop off his arms with a machete. Like most of us, he cannot go home.”
The director of human rights support for the Western Cape government, Sifiso Mbuyisa, said negotiations were ongoing and solutions would be found.
“There is money [available] from the International Organisation on Migration and provincial government and the De Doorns refugees want to be treated as individuals,” said Mbuyisa. “We will begin having meetings with them before the end of this week.”
Residents of Stofland and Ekuphumleni told the M&G there had been meetings in the community hall to discuss when the camp will be closed so they can make use of their sports field again.
“There are so many Zimbabweans pouring into De Doorns,” said a South African in Ekuphumleni, who asked not to be named. “But many of them have now gone back to Zimbabwe because they were given free tickets home. We don’t expect any violence after 2010. We expect job creation.”
Complicated in Cosmo City
“We do not live in fear,” say Jason and Tapfuma (not their real names), two Zimbabweans who sell cigarettes and sweets from behind a battered school desk at Cosmo City’s informal market. Jason is aware of anti-foreigner sentiment but says it springs from the frustration of South Africa’s poor: “People are tired of registering for houses that they do not get.”
Andile—a South African who is a caretaker at a local school - says he hasn’t heard any rumours about renewed xenophobia. “These people do not bother me at all. They are just looking for work like anyone else. Kids from all walks of life go this school.” Nearby, Mduduzi is working on a construction site. He rents out rooms in his home to foreign tenants and is determined to keep them safe. “I know these people very well. I am just going to tell them to stay indoors. I am not about to beat anyone.”—Duduzile Mathebula