Fear and distrust as victims regroup in South Africa

After deadly xenophobic violence, foreigners sheltering in camps outside Durban plot their next course.

South Africa
More than 5,000 people were displaced after deadly violence against foreigners [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]

Chatsworth , South Africa –  There is a lot of confusion here. No one in the camps for internally displaced people understands how they pose a threat to South Africans – nor why they’re being killed for trying to make a living.

Foreigners living in the cramped camps are ordinary barbers, cashiers, security guards, and corner-store owners unaccustomed to being targets of hatred and violence.

“We are just creating so when they say we are taking [jobs] from them, they are totally wrong,” said Amuri Djuma, 32, from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

 Meeting the refugees fleeing xenophobic violence

“Even if we leave there still won’t be jobs in South Africa. They will still be asking for jobs.”

More than 5 ,000 people were displaced after deadly violence against foreign nationals erupted on March 30 in the country’s coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal, whose capital is Durban.

Attacks soon spread to the country’s financial hub, Johannesburg, in Gauteng province.

At least eight people were killed by machete-wielding mobs also armed with bricks and sticks who roamed the streets attacking anyone thought to be non-South African. Some victims were beaten and set ablaze.

Hundreds have fled to the relative safety of camps on the outskirts of Durban, a city of about 3.5 million people.

Security at the Phoenix and Chatsworth camps was tight with police and private guards on 24-hour surveillance, closely watching over the green-and-white tents encircled by metal fencing.

The banked rage and disappointment in the faces of the 2,500 people living in the Chatsworth camp was immediately discernible.

It is a struggle for camp officials to handle the high number of new arrivals.

Lacking space for tents, dozens of displaced people are forced to sleep out in the open. Mattresses lay strewn across a dirt field, wet clothes hang to dry on surrounding fences, and garbage blows along the ground.

Camp officials have organised football matches to help traumatised young men forget their ordeal and boredom. Medical staff have had their hands full with at least three young women giving birth here in the past three weeks.

Anti-immigrant sentiment

Foreigners are widely perceived by South Africans to be usurping the country’s resources and engaging in criminal activities.

“They are greedy and if they went away spaces for business would open up,” Bongekile Dladla, 28, a hawker from Durban, told Al Jazeera when asked about foreigners.

Djuma, however, said the perception of immigrants as criminals is ludicrous.

“When we came here, the country was full of crime so I don’t know where  they get the idea that foreigners are the one doing the crime, being criminal,” said Djuma.

About 2,500 displaced people remain at the Chatsworth camp outside of Durban [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]
About 2,500 displaced people remain at the Chatsworth camp outside of Durban [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]

While the South African government has condemned the violence meted out against foreigners, President Jacob Zuma’s administration is held with much contempt.

Few here at the camp believe the outbreak of violence was spontaneous, and some have accused police officers of doing nothing to help.

“They stood by and watched and then took us to hospital,” Djuma said of the police.

Foreign nationals here remain unsure of their safety.

Rumours abound of the imminent closure of the camps, but few are ready to reintegrate into their communities in Durban. Few believe the reassurances given by government officials.

Mavis Kandulu’s husband Francois died on Sunday.  Police told her he stepped in front of a train – his body split into three pieces. No one here, however, believes his death was an accident.

Another man, in an argument with authorities at the Isipingo camp  on Friday , said he was hit on the back of the head with a gun by a police officer, and he’s now in hospital.

One resident at the camp, requesting anonymity for security reasons, said when police entered with riot gear to quell the argument that night, foreigners in the camp panicked and tried to climb the fence to escape.

“We thought they were coming to shoot all of us,” she told Al Jazeera.

Attempts to reach KwaZulu-Natal’s police spokesman Jay Naicker for comment were unsuccessful.

Celebrating freedom

In scenes reminiscent of April 27, 1994, when millions of South Africans queued up to vote for the first time, thousands of foreigners on Monday lined up to receive food in a camp for displaced persons.

In commemoration of Freedom Day , the displaced foreign nationals were entertained with a series of cultural activities, including a concert and dancing. The event began with immigrant children singing the South African national anthem for the crowd.

“They are singing and dancing and what not, but we are bleeding inside,” said Blessing Shire from Zimbabwe.

For most Malawians at Chatsworth and Isipingo, the violence and damage to property mean their stay in South Africa is over. They said they’d rather earn pitiful wages back home in Blantyre than fear for their lives in the purported land of opportunity.

  Plea for justice after S Africa violence

“I came here almost two years ago seeking greener pastures, but I am going back and never returning,” said Peter Palume, 28, who received almost 40 stitches in his head when he was attacked in the township Umlazi.

For others from Burundi and DR Congo, it is not possible to return home.

Burundi is currently struggling through political instability with an election looming, and eastern DRC remains overrun by militias.

“We are in a dilemma now. Where do we go? I don’t know,” said Djuma from DRC.

Qiniso Mbili contributed to this report

Source: Al Jazeera