George Mhanda came to Johannesburg to feed his family, struggling to eat under Robert Mugabe’s derelict rule. The Zimbabwean mechanic found a job in a local garage and a room in a small house in Tembisa township, and sent cash home every month.
This week he fled the house ahead of a baying mob hunting down African immigrants, and made for the sanctuary of the Central Methodist Church in the heart of Johannesburg. He thinks his job is gone but now his priority is just to survive. At night he arms himself with a small pile of bricks for defence against the hostile mobs roaming outside, and settles down to sleep among hundreds of other unwelcome Africans on a flight of stairs in the church.
Mhanda cannot quite believe it has come to this. He had heard of such things in Rwanda and Kenya, of the killers going door to door in search of those who are different. But he never imagined it in Johannesburg, one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan cities on the continent and a beacon for immigrants.
”There’s crime here, we all know that. But people come from all over to Johannesburg. It’s that kind of city, not just a South African city but an African city. I can’t understand it,” he said. ”Now maybe I will have to go back to Zimbabwe. I will wait a few days and see what happens but perhaps it is worse to be here than there.”
South Africa’s bloodletting is a long way from the ethnic killings of Rwanda and Kenya. But at least 43 people have been murdered and tens of thousands forced from their homes as mobs hunted down African immigrants in a dozen Johannesburg suburbs and satellite townships. With it has come looting and rape.
Thousands of immigrants are fleeing home. About 15Ã‚Â 000 Mozambicans crossed the border back to their country on Thursday alone. Others packed Johannesburg’s bus and train stations looking for a way out. Many thousands are crammed into police compounds and community halls.
More than 2Ã‚Â 000 immigrants, mostly Zimbabweans, are sheltering at the Central Methodist Church. They fill every space, sleeping on the pews, in the corridors, on the stairs. About a third are women and children. Makeshift defensive weapons are everywhere — bricks, wood from broken chairs, metal bars.
There were skirmishes around the church as mobs attacked the refugees in recent days, and plenty of threats and insults from passersby, before the police parked a couple of cars outside. In one of the attacks a deaf-mute man who did not hear the warnings of an attack was beaten around the head, leaving a gash down to his skull.
Now the violence is spreading across the country to Cape Town, Durban and the Free State.
Some of the scenes in the townships and squatter camps were disturbingly reminiscent of hatred seen elsewhere.
The mob that drove Mhanda from his home consisted of hundreds of young men armed with machetes, spears, knobkerries and metal pipes fashioned to look like guns. They danced their way through Tembisa in scenes evocative of the bloody township wars when rival black political groups competed for power with the twilight of apartheid in the early 1990s.
”There was hatred in their eyes,” said Mhanda. ”They were shouting things in Zulu. I didn’t understand but I knew what they wanted to do, to kill the foreigners. It was very frightening. The people in the street told me to run. They said that if those boys caught me I would be dead for sure.”
Two foreigners were murdered the night that Mhanda fled and scores of shacks burned or looted. In other places the victims have been burned alive, or chopped into pieces.
The attacks mostly come at night. Sometimes the mobs know where the foreign families live but if they are in doubt they haul them out of their beds and ask a simple question in Zulu, the lingua franca of the townships. Lack of comprehension is dangerous.
The scenes in Tembisa have resulted in something else not seen since the end of apartheid — South African soldiers patrolling the townships.
A Somali was killed on Friday when a mob in Du Noon in Cape Town attacked shacks and looted shops, and pelted foreigners with rocks and bottles. The police took about 500 immigrants to the protection of a police station.
Du Noon residents said they wanted all the foreigners out.
”We want them to leave by Sunday,” Nonkululeko Sarlana told the South African Press Association.
Moses Ndabihawenimana and his two brothers fled Burundi two years ago after their parents were murdered there. Now he fears a similar fate in South Africa. ”This is war. They are going to kill us,” he said.
The church’s bishop, Paul Verryn, said ordinary South Africans had grown hostile to African immigrants as Zimbabweans flooded into the country. By some estimates there are three million Zimbabweans in South Africa and about two million other African immigrants.
”The numbers here created anxiety,” he said. ”You can’t get away from the fact that some of them are very educated with a substantial work ethic — the Zimbabweans in particular. This is true of refugees the world over. They will do whatever work they need to survive. If they are doctors and they have to sell newspapers they will do it. And you watch them advance faster and they’re sitting ducks.”
”Ask my boss why he employs me,” said Mhanda. ”He is a white boss. He will tell you South Africans are lazy. They get up and start drinking beer. They don’t like to work. They don’t do the job properly. They don’t come to work and still expect to be paid. He says he has had to deal with that all his life.”
That is not the view in Alexandra, a township of about 500Ã‚Â 000 people living in difficult conditions in the heart of Johannesburg where the violence began two weeks ago. It, like Soweto, has been one of the beneficiaries of large government spending to bring decent housing and schools to the townships.
But what the uplift has not brought is jobs. Earning a living remained difficult, and was not made easier as Zimbabweans fleeing their country’s economic crisis packed in to the township.
Many were well educated and found work that Alexandrans could not. The bitterness grew until it exploded. Now about 1Ã‚Â 000 immigrants are packed in to the compound of the township’s police station for protection.
Veronica Khoza, a street trader, has little sympathy. ”They give the jobs to Zimbabweans because they will work for cheap wages. We are South Africans. We know our rights and we demand to be paid properly,” she said.
There is also contempt for their failure to take on Robert Mugabe.
”They have run away,” said Khoza ”All they do is complain about how horrible Mugabe is to them. Why don’t they stay in their country and fight? We fought apartheid. Many people were killed. Many people went to prison, even children. The white soldiers were here, in Alexandra, and they shot people. We didn’t just run away.”
Perhaps not, but large numbers of South Africans did leave the country to join the liberation struggle and ended up living in Zimbabwe, Angola, Tanzania and Mozambique. It is a source of bitterness among immigrants from those countries that the hospitality they offered is not reciprocated.
More than 5Ã‚Â 000 immigrants have stayed at Verryn’s church since it opened its doors to them four years ago. Some have slept there for just a couple of nights. Others have remained for years. About one-third are women and children who sleep in a separate part of the building although a number of women have become pregnant and given birth while living in the church.
This, and allegations of criminal activity, has led to hostile coverage in the South African press that Verryn says has contributed to antagonism toward immigrants. He is exercised by an article in the Star newspaper two years ago under the headline: ”Place of worship now a den of iniquity”.
It carried the story of a Zimbabwean immigrant, Andrew Khumalo, who was stabbed to death in the church in a row over clothes. It quoted members of the congregation as complaining that people had sex in the church, and there was drunkenness and brawling.
”There are problems but look at the other people who have settled here who are a credit to the country. Some are working in their professions. There are builders, mechanics, accountants, teachers,” said Verryn. ”There’s a sense of solidarity, of family, in this building. People really help each other.”
The police raided the church in February, arresting hundreds of undocumented immigrants. Verryn said the police behaved like criminals.
”They were assaulting people. They were stealing. Their whole demeanour was aggressive,” he said.
All those detained were later freed.
Many South Africans are ashamed of the violence. Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Cape Town and anti-apartheid leader, appealed for an end to the attacks. ”We human beings, ever since the Garden of Eden, are looking for scapegoats,” he wrote.
The bishop receives a call about a church in the wealthy white Johannesburg suburb which is less than enthusiastic about taking refugees. He quotes Matthew’s gospel at the caller — ”I was a stranger and you welcomed me in” and, after hanging up, smiles and says he might send a few homeless immigrants up to the hesitant church. – guardian.co.uk Ã‚