South Africa's foreigner problem
The pictures out of Johannesburg today, like the one at left by Bloomberg, are deeply troubling, if not unexpected.
Last year I blogged about attacks on Somali immigrants in South Africa. Now black South Africans, frustrated by persistent unemployment and rising food prices, have begun venting their anger at just about any African immigrant they can find. Mobs wielding sticks and torches roamed through the townships of Africa's most industrialized city, targeting immigrants from Mozambique, Malawi, Somalia, Zimbabwe. Police said today that 22 people had been killed over the past week.
Like in Kenya a few months ago, the saddest irony is that these attacks pit this country's poorest against one another. The end of apartheid has not cured South Africa's problems. Its leaders talk of a "Rainbow Nation" but the sprawling townships are full of poor blacks who still can't afford a pot of clean drinking water, let alone anything else.
At the same time, South Africa's overall prosperity has made it a magnet for refugees from countries with bigger problems. Large communities of Somalis, Congolese, Angolans and other foreigners crowd the cities to wash cars, clean houses, do anything. South Africa doesn't have refugee camps, so immigrants can go straight into the well-off cities and earn jobs that no one else wants to do.
Of the country's 50 million people, about 5 million are immigrants -- 3 million from Zimbabwe. Xenophobia is an epidemic. South Africans blame foreigners for the high crime rate, but immigrants say that they're the main victims. Congolese, who don't speak the language, are easy targets for the odd mugging or beating. And yet for them, the promise of being hated in a stable country is better than the
The latest flare-up comes as thousands of Zimbabweans stream into South Africa, fleeing post-election violence in their tinpot nation. South Africa has no plan to deal with these people. Its president, Thabo Mbeki, lamely called today for an "expert panel" to investigate.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel laureate, pointed out today that it was South African blacks who, not long ago, in the darkest times of apartheid, sought shelter in countries like Zimbabwe. Now that South Africa's economy, the engine of the continent, is struggling, all of Africa could be imperiled. The first people to see that up close, sadly, are the foreigners living in the Rainbow Nation.