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Public response to xenophobia highlights government failings

A woman marches in the inner city of Johannesburg in protest against xenophobic attacks that have spread across the country.
(Laura Lopez Gonzalez/IRIN)

Before 11 May, Zimbabwean national Samuel Zona used to work as a gardener. Now, in the wake of violent xenophobic attacks that have swept across South Africa and left at least 56 people dead, he prepares thousands of meals for hundreds of displaced foreign nationals seeking refuge and safety at a Johannesburg police station.

Scenes such as these are being repeated across the country, where xenophobic violence has raced through poor communities and the lack of a coherent government response has led to a growing sense of militancy among - according to some estimates - the nearly 80,000 people displaced by the violence.

In South Africa's tourist capital, Cape Town, about 700 people are bedding down at night outside the Caledon Square police station, but rumours that they are to be herded into "refugee camps" are being met with resistance.

"We're planning to stay here until we get some answers. We don't trust to go to the camps or centres, because those are short-term solutions," John Mazambi, spokesman for the group gathered at the police station, told IRIN.

"When they put you in a camp, they have control over you. I can't afford to be put in a jail for I don't know how long. From today, we have stopped accepting food. We are not here for people to feed us; so, from today we will refuse all food until we get some answers."

Criticism of President Thabo Mbeki has come from across the political spectrum, including his own party, for government's slow response to a growing humanitarian crisis. Two weeks after the attacks began, and a few days after the army was called in to assist the police, he appeared on national television to condemn the violence. He then left for Japan.

The void left by government's response is being filled by the public's generosity. Many South Africans have been appalled and ashamed by the killings, looting, burning and rape of foreign nationals.

From gardener to humanitarian worker

Zona, who used to work as a gardener at the Village Safe Haven, a group foster home and feeding scheme that sprawls across several hectares of land on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg, now cooks for the truckload of foreigners who ran to the charity for safety from the attacks and are now living there in tents.

He also sought shelter at his place of work two weeks ago, after he and his five brothers were threatened by men at his Ivory Park home, a largely informal township about 20km north of Johannesburg.

Zona helps prepare about 9,000 meals a day for the charity, which then delivers them to the nearby Alexandra police station, where hundreds of people are still sheltering, including two of his brothers who chose to stay in South Africa.

Donations of maizemeal, nappies (diapers), baby formula and even two tons of beans have been pouring into the foster home, said Susan Harris, who runs the charity with her husband, Michael.

"People have been coming by until nine in the evening, and not all of it has been big donations," she said. "Sometimes it's just someone with a blanket and a grocery store carrier bag, and as soon as it comes in, it goes out."

In Cape Town, as in other xenophobic hotspots, churches, mosques, community halls and police stations serve as temporary shelters for the over 18,000 displaced people in the city, and now have to rely on food, clothing, bedding, toiletries and medical care donated by civil society.

HIV/AIDS organisation running relief effort

"The responses to this crisis to ensure that basic needs are met has been astounding, and our gratitude to all those who have contributed is enormous," said Nathan Geffen, director of communications at the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), an AIDS activist organisation, told IRIN. The TAC is serving as a command centre for the multi-organisational relief effort in Cape Town.

''We have basically stepped in and fulfilled the role of the state over the last three days, and the state has utterly failed in its duty, particularly at the provincial and national level''

"We have basically stepped in and fulfilled the role of the state over the last three days, and the state has utterly failed in its duty, particularly at the provincial and national level. But all three tiers - city, province and nation - have failed to work together appropriately. As of yesterday [27 May], of the three, the city was the only tier trying to respond," Geffen told IRIN.

"Last night we informed the city and province that they have until Wednesday afternoon [28 may] to take over the functions that we've been providing here, because this is not sustainable. We are not a disaster response unit," Geffen said.

Zonke Majodina, deputy chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), a constitutionally mandated body, said this week: "Government is not charting a course of action. Political leaders have made very few statements, and have not come up with a co-ordinated response."

SAHRC spokesperson Vincent Moaga said the commission had also suggested to a panel, set up by President Thabo Mbeki to investigate the causes of the violence, that if the government's current policies were hampering its response, it should consider declaring a state of emergency.

African National Congress (ANC) President Jacob Zuma and prominent ANC member Winnie Madikizela-Mandela have visited some of the sites where violence flared, but few other political leaders have put in an appearance. Mbeki has been heavily criticised for the extent of his response: other than appointing a panel to investigate the xenophobia, he has issued statements between engagements in Tanzania and, this week, in Japan.

The majority of foreign nationals, estimated to number between one million and ten million in South Africa, are classed as economic migrants, drawn to the country by the promise of work and opportunities that are not always available in their countries of origin.

Breadwinner not refugee

The talk of the establishing "refugee camps" is creating unease among the displaced. "We don't want to go to the camps. Others went already but they came back and told us, 'It's no good, it's very cold; they don't have enough food or water and people are sick'," said David, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who owned a shop in Cape Town's Philippi township before it was razed by his neighbours.

Most of those sheltering at Cape Town's Caledon Square police station are from Somalia, Zimbabwe, DRC and Burundi; they told IRIN they would not voluntarily go to any of the camps established by the city, because it would be "like going to jail".

The police station is one of about 65 venues in and around Cape Town where foreign nationals displaced by the xenophobic violence that began on 22 May have sought refuge.

The city's response, which so far has largely been to set up four displacement camps, or "temporary places of safety", has also been criticised.

Numerous sources report that the camps were inadequately stocked with food, water and blankets; in some cases people have reportedly been coerced into going to the camps, such as one established in Atlantis, about 50km north of Cape Town.

"A lot of these guys [displaced people] are the sole breadwinner for 12 people back home and can't afford not to work, so for them it's not an option to go 50 kilometres up the west coast to sit in a camp. They aren't here to sit and be fed; they came here to support a dozen people back home," Helen Hacksley, a volunteer from Rondebosch United Church, in suburban Cape Town, told IRIN.

''We cannot process people's needs and protect them from violence if they are dispersed in scores of tiny locations across the city''

In a press statement, the mayor, Helen Zille, said: "The City of Cape Town is not forcing anyone to come to the safety sites we have established, nor preventing them from leaving. On the contrary, hundreds of people are demanding entry every day and many of the sites are now full to capacity.

"We cannot process people's needs and protect them from violence if they are dispersed in scores of tiny locations across the city," the statement said. "That is why we have set up a few big safety sites instead of many small ones."

The City has also requested help from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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