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Mandela's vision of tolerance under threat

Amid rise in xenophobic attacks, African migrants in South Africa looked to "Madiba" as a symbol of forbearance.

Last updated: 06 Dec 2013 06:38
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A mural depicts a photograph of Nelson Mandela working in the Robben Island prison garden in 1977 [AP]

Johannesburg, South Africa - As news of Nelson Mandela flashes across a grimy television screen, Miro Mavila squints and praises Africa's icon of peace for "keeping us together".

The shop owner is an immigrant from Mozambique, and dwells in the Ramaphosaville settlement east of Johannesburg. Crackling embers from a coal brazier illuminate one side of the dark, single-window corrugated structure he calls home. The rest of the room is lit by a new Coca Cola-branded refrigerator holding soft drinks for sale.

Amid a spate of recent attacks against foreigners in the country, Mavila says the escalating xenophobic violence is not what Mandela - affectionately known here as "Madiba" - had in mind for a post-apartheid South Africa.

I still live in fear but I am going to stay in South Africa, because I know that what is happening now is not what Tata Madiba [Mandela] wanted for this country.

Miro Mavila, shop owner from Mozambique

Attacks against foreigners have been on the rise since 2008. In 2012, 140 foreigners were killed and 250 others wounded in xenophobic incidents across the country, according to the African Centre for Migration & Society.

At least three attacks on foreigners occur each week, the centre says.

"I still live in fear but I am going to stay in South Africa, because I know that what is happening now is not what Tata Madiba [Mandela] wanted for this country," Mavila told Al Jazeera.  

Mavila says he was only 16 years old when he first came to South Africa and worked hard at various construction sites around Johannesburg.

"Today I have my own small shop and I manage to send money to my family back in Mozambique. Back home it is almost impossible to achieve what I have achieved here, and I give thanks to Mandela for allowing us to his country."

Man of peace

The man who spent 27 years in prison standing up against white rule in South Africa must have undoubtedly been concerned about the rise in violence against foreigners.  

"We are definitely what we are today because of this man," Mavila said. "Mandela has proved many times that he is not a leader for South Africans, but of all people."

On the other side of Johannesburg in Diepsloot, Zimbabwean car mechanic and spray painter Shereni Kudzai hastily tightens nuts and bolts on the engine of a rickety 1980s BMW 3 Series.

Kudzai says he fixes about three vehicles a day from his pavement garage, but complains that spray-painting jobs are less frequent now. "This is my last job for the day," he says, pulling out a Blackberry from his coverall's pocket to check the time.

Kudzai first came to South Africa in 2001 and visits Zimbabwe once a year. Back home, Kudzai was a high school agriculture teacher. But with the current dismal economic situation in Zimbabwe, he says he earns more money as a street-side mechanic.

"Life is tough but it's much better here. Madiba [Mandela] has obviously paved a way for us. I don't think that we would have come to South Africa if it were not of him," he says.

A boy drives past a Nelson Mandela mural [Reuters]

Kudzai says he never thought he would be called a "foreigner" by another black African.

"I was naïve. I had been brought up in the age-old African custom that does not recognise the term foreigner. In our culture, when a stranger visits your village, it is regarded as a blessing and not a curse. But what we have seen here in South Africa in recent times has been a rude awakening."

Asylum seekers

According to the Department of Home Affairs, South Africa has the highest number of asylum seekers in the world, with almost 30,000 people formally registered. However, thousands more slip through the official cracks.

The department said the country's porous borders and coastline, as well as ineffective monitoring of land, rail and sea transportation modes, make it possible for undocumented migrants to enter the country undetected.

South Africa has been a beacon for asylum seekers and migrants because of its liberal immigration laws and strong economy compared with the rest of the continent. Millions across the continent - the bulk from neighbouring Zimbabwe - have come seeking wealth they cannot find in their homelands.

But some say increasing immigration has contributed to escalating youth employment, crime and poverty among South African citizens. It is also the reason why South Africans are less tolerant towards foreigners, says Dosso Ndessomin, an activist with the Co-ordinating Body for Refugee and Migrant Communities.

An Ivorian by birth, Ndessomin has lived in South Africa for 19 years. He told Al Jazeera that Nelson Mandela was an example of uncompromising passion for the people of Africa.

"When I was at school we learned about apartheid and segregation in South Africa. We were told about this great man … Nelson Mandela sacrificed everything for the liberation of his people," says Ndessomin. "I personally consider Nelson Mandela the chief of Africa."

Mandela is seen as a symbol of tolerance and peace [Al Jazeera]

Ndessomin said the legacy of apartheid partly explains the situation today. Under white rule, South Africans were mostly clustered together by race or tribe.

"When black Africans from within the continent came to South Africa, they found that black South Africans already had their own form of segregation, and it was difficult for them to accept other people other than their own," he said.

"Personally I have accepted that there is racism, tribalism and xenophobia in South Africa, and that it all depends on all of us to make a difference. We need leaders such as Mandela to lead us to that reality, and I believe that it is possible."

Back at Ramaphosaville, the shopkeeper from Mozambique Mavila ponders a future without Mandela, and says he's worried about the recent spate of xenophobic violence. "I guess we will just have to wait and see."

This feature was originally published in June 2013. It has been updated to reflect the death of the South African leader on December 5, 2013.

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Al Jazeera
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