Displaced foreigners 'still too scared to return'

Michael Mushi stands near the spot where Mozambican national Ernesto Nhamuave was burnt alive and issues a warning to any foreigners who might be thinking of returning to this Johannesburg informal settlement.

“We will not allow any of these people to come back here. They are not allowed,” says Mushi amid the charred remnants of makeshift homes where immigrants had lived before a recent wave of violence targeting them.

Some of the tens of thousands displaced by May’s anti-immigrant attacks in South Africa have trickled back into their old neighbourhoods, but resistance and outright threats from residents have made returning impossible for many.

More than 13 000 remain housed in camps throughout the country after being relocated there following the outbreak of the violence—far less than the 30 000 who were there previously.

Many have returned to their native lands, while others have taken up residence in areas different from where they were before.

Sixty-two people were killed in the violence, much of which occurred around the economic capital of Johannesburg, where South Africans blame immigrants for taking jobs and for high crime rates.

The attacks were so severe that troops were sent to townships to help police. President Thabo Mbeki, who is to address a special service in Pretoria on Thursday commemorating the victims, described it as a “humiliating disgrace for our nation”.

The government wants the reintegration process complete by the end of August and has sent mediators into neighbourhoods in a bid to ease tensions and allow those displaced to return, but the anger is entrenched.

“I think the burning of that man sent a strong message that we do not want foreigners here,” says Mushi, who is unemployed and lives in an area known as Ramaphosa village.

The settlement, one of the hot spots of the violence, became the face of the attacks when a Mozambican man identified as Ernesto Nhamuave was assaulted and burnt alive.

As Mushi spoke, barefoot children played around the site at the makeshift playground where he was killed.

According to local councillor Zakhele Mnguni, none of the displaced immigrants have returned to Ramaphosa.

“We have not had anyone from government coming here to talk to us about reintegration, but as you can see, the environment is still not conducive for any resettlement,” said Mnguni.

Scars of the violence are still visible in the dirt-strewn roads snaking around the village, where houses are built with car scraps and chipboard.

Charred debris and blackened concrete floors can be seen where houses once stood.

Cases of successful reintegration have been reported in parts of the country that did not experience some of the most severe attacks, such as Sekhukhune Limpopo, Durban and Port Elizabeth.

Some have even moved back to areas around Johannesburg.

A Mozambican domestic worker, Lydia Maaku, said she was among the first to voluntarily return home to Thokoza township, on the eastern outskirts of Johannesburg, leaving behind a cramped camp.

“At first I was scared to go back, but in my heart I believed that my neighbours will protect me from harm,” said Maaku.

“The first night was really bad. We were awakened by people shouting slogans, but neighbours intervened and everything returned to normal.”

Her 16-year-old son, Fana Sithole, said his family did not want to flee South Africa after living in the country for over two decades.

“My parents came here in the 1980s before I was born, so now we are all South Africans. There was no point in continuing staying in the camps,” he said.

But they are apparently among the few who have returned to Thokoza.

Community leader Cassius Nkosi said he knew of very few immigrants who had gone back to their looted homes.

“I understand that a large number of them voluntarily went back to their home countries after the insurgence of violence. Others are still too scared to return from the camps,” said Nkosi.

Tara Palzer, a researcher in migration at the University of Johannesburg, along with the government and NGOs, had begun programmes to educate communities about the plight of refugees.

“It is crucial that people are given education on tolerance to prevent similar flare-ups in the near future,” said Palzer.

As for Mushi, he said foreigners “do not belong here”.

“Government must place them somewhere else,” he said. “The community here will not welcome anybody who tries to come back.”—Sapa-AFP

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