/ 26 May 2008

Govt under pressure over violence

The South African government came under pressure on Monday to deal with the aftermath of deadly anti-foreigner violence that has displaced an estimated 35 000 people. This was a day after the national address by President Thabo Mbeki.

As thousands headed for the borders to return home, a growing humanitarian crisis was developing domestically with crowds of foreigners sheltering at police stations, community centres and churches.

An estimated 35 000 are displaced internally and thousands more have fled the country. Mozambican authorities said that 26 000 people had returned home since the start of the troubles, which have left at least 50 dead.

A parliamentary special task team set up to investigate the attacks was to brief reporters later in the day amid confusion about how authorities plan to reintegrate and care for the thousands of people sleeping rough.

”The situation is about to get worse. People have still not received aid and they’re not even under tents,” Muriel Cornelius, programme coordinator for South Africa for aid group Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), said.

”The reaction of civil society is incredible but it is not enough,” Cornelius said.

Francoise Le Goff, director of the Red Cross in Southern Africa, said the organisation had helped 29 000 displaced people and was facing difficulties coordinating the massive operation.

”The big problem is coordination of information between authorities and NGOs. It’s not very well organised,” she said

”The government is still looking for shelters for people and we’re still in an emergency situation.”

Warning of a return to the violent past of the struggle against apartheid, Mbeki called the two weeks of attacks on foreigners ”an absolute disgrace” in a 10-minute address broadcast nationwide late on Sunday.

Foreigners in South Africa, many of whom have fled economic meltdown in neighbouring Zimbabwe, are being blamed for sky-high crime rates and depriving locals of jobs.

Groups of armed youths have purged many poor slum areas around hot spot Johannesburg, with unrest reported in seven of the country’s nine provinces since violence broke out on May 11.

Too little, too late

The problems are seen as a result of policy failures to address critical housing shortages, clandestine immigration and the poverty-ridden conditions in the slums that surround South Africa’s cities.

Mbeki and the government are now facing a backlash after being accused of failing to spot a rising tide of xenophobia and reacting slowly and ineffectively to the first attacks more than two weeks ago.

The president faced a front-page demand for his resignation from the Sunday Times on the weekend and he gave his first public address since the outbreak of unrest on Sunday.

”It was too little, too late,” the executive director of think tank the Institute for Security Studies, Jakkie Cilliers, said Monday, saying the president had yet to visit affected areas.

”It was a very good speech but belated,” analyst Sipho Seepe of the South African Institute of Race relations told South African Broadcasting Corporation radio, referring to the address.

”The challenge is not about condemnation. It’s about taking steps immediately when there is mayhem in the country.”

Although the overall picture on Monday was one of calm after a crackdown by police, intelligence services and the army, flare-ups were still being reported and the atmosphere remained tense.

In Durban, five Mozambicans were seriously injured after being attacked on Sunday night, police said.

In Cape Town, police reported calm and in Johannesburg it was quiet with only a few shacks burnt.

”It has been very, very quiet, apart from a few empty shacks set alight in Katlehong [east of Johannesburg],” said Govindsamy Mariemuthoo, police spokesperson for Gauteng.

Mbeki’s speech on Sunday came after government heavyweights descended on informal settlements around the country in an attempt to appease angry locals.

African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma, usually hugely popular, was heckled by a 4 000-strong crowd in Springs, east of Johannesburg, demanding that foreigners leave the country.

Meanwhile, an estimated 25 000 Zimbabweans are heading for Zambia as they flee anti-immigrant violence in South Africa, with thousands of others leaving for Mozambique and Botswana, the Red Cross said on Monday.

”In Zambia, our teams are expecting the arrival of 25 000 Zimbabweans, or 5 000 families,” Le Goff said.

”At least 5 500 Zimbabweans have had assistance to Mozambique,” she added, and 342 had been received in centres near the border with Botswana.

About three million Zimbabweans are believed to have fled an economic meltdown in their country to seek work in South Africa.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe said on Sunday that Zimbabweans fleeing the anti-immigrant violence could have land if they returned home.

”Our land is still there, even for youngsters, those who are in South Africa who wish to return to the country,” he said.


Humanitarian camps set up to house foreigners escaping xenophobic attacks in areas surrounding Cape Town will soon turn into breeding zones for disease and crime, Western Cape civil society groups said on Monday.

Briefing the media on the impact of xenophobic attacks on foreigners, Aids and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa representative Paula Akugizibwe said the government must immediately step in and roll out a health service in the camps where the victims were being housed.

”They need to put a plan in place to ensure that people living in these camps have access to medication.

Those who were HIV positive as well as tuberculosis (TB) patients were at high risk and needed urgent attention. Even those who were healthy were in serious danger of contracting contagious diseases such as TB because of overcrowding in the camps, Akugizibwe said.

Treatment Action Campaign chairperson Zachie Achmat said the situation in some of the camps was of serious concern. Fifty eight cases of cholera had already been reported in one of the camps in Nyanga township, where close to 400 foreigners had taken shelter.

Black Sash representative Alroys Paulos said the organisation had received reports of xenophobic attacks in the camps, where several nationals were being forced to stay under one roof.

”In one of the camps, a woman was raped. People were being forced stay in one place without any regard to cultural differences,” he said.

Since the xenophobic attacks started last week, about 40 relief centres have been set up in the areas surrounding Cape Town. — AFP, Sapa