Mandela fate stirs anxiety among S. Africa immigrants
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Following a wave of xenophobic violence in Johannesburg in May, South African’s immigrants fear that hostility towards them could intensify after the death of Nelson Mandela. FRANCE 24 speaks to residents from one Pretoria neighbourhood.
, in Pretoria
In May 2008, a wave of xenophobic attacks swept through Johannesburg townships before spreading across the country, in a deadly spurt of violence former president Thabo Mbeki said had “blemished the name of South Africa”. The targets were immigrant workers, accused of stealing local jobs and being behind rising crime rates.
More than 60 people - mostly from neighbouring Mozambique and Zimbabwe - who had come to South Africa to benefit from the country’s relative prosperity were brutally murdered, killed with guns and machetes.
Five years on, these scenes of violence were tragically repeated in a number of Johannesburg slums in May this year, and the prospect of future attacks is a major cause for concern for the country’s immigrant population, who often find themselves playing the role of scapegoat for the poorest South Africans.
In Sunnyside, a middle class district in the capital Pretoria, where only 30 per cent of the population is South African, many immigrants fear that the death of Nelson Mandela, who is critically ill in hospital, could open the door to a new outbreak of xenophobia. They see the former South African president as being a sort of moral guardian of the nation who up til now has prevented it from falling into internal conflict.
‘They have told me many times to go back to my country’
“Here, apart from Madiba [Mandela’s clan name], I don’t have any South African friends,” says, Jerry, a 30-year-old Nigerian, in a Sunnyside hairdresser’s.
“When he dies, things will change for sure. I’m not saying that armed gangs will come for us here, only that a lot of South Africans in this area don’t like us. They have told me many times to go back to my country, so I stay on my guard.”
Jerry’s hairdresser and countryman Ebo also fears an outbreak of xenophobia. If this comes to pass, even in another part of the country, he says he will go back to Nigeria.
“I’ve been working in this hairdresser’s for six months and I’ve only ever seen foreigners here,” says Ebo. “The South Africans almost never come to get their hair cut here. Some of them like us, but some ignore us too.”
On the pavement outside, on Sunnyside’s main commercial street, Martial, a 30-year-old Cameroonian shop owner, shares their concern over what might happen ‘post-Mandela’, but he tries to remain optimistic.
“South Africans sometimes speak in dialects we don’t understand, they do it on purpose to make us uncomfortable, but that’s all,” he says. “I don’t think anything will happen in Pretoria.”
‘We drive the economy here’
Similarly, Nana, the owner of another hair salon next door to Martial’s shop, believes the latent racism that exists in Sunnyside will not turn into violence.
“It’s true that when I think about the violence of the past, my heart breaks,” he says, ”but I have some South African friends, they don’t all want to kick us out.
“The South Africans need us. We drive the economy here,” he adds with a laugh. “All the shops in the area belong to foreigners.”
Importantly, according to Martial, the social make-up of Sunnyside is different to that of the townships where xenophobic violence has taken place before.
“We are not in some isolated village or in a poor area here. If some South Africans come to attack us we can defend ourselves, there are a lot of us,” he explains while dressing a shop mannequin in an alluring blue nightgown.
Ali, Martial’s Pakistani neighbor and owner of a Sunnyside grocery shop for the last 30 years, agrees.
“If the violence returns, it will be in remote areas and parts where foreigners are in the minority,” says Ali, though he believes that things will undoubtedly change “for the worse” after Mandela dies.
His son Fahim adds: “I will never leave here, even if they try to drive me out. I don’t have an identity card but I am South African. I love Mandela and this is my home.”