Johannesburg, South Africa – Hoisting banners and singing songs of peace, thousands of South Africans have marched through the streets of Johannesburg to show their support for foreign nationals after a spate of anti-immigrant violence across the country in recent weeks.
A procession of people spanning five kilometres marched through the city in the biggest display of solidarity with foreign nationals since the violence began on March 30, in Durban. At least eight people have been killed and thousands of others displaced since then.
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Organisers said their aim was to bring together as many people as possible and denounce xenophobia.
“We wanted to show Africa and to show South Africa that we reject xenophobia, that we disassociate ourselves from violence against foreign people and that we stand for social justice and all people’s dignity,” Mark Heywood, the executive director of Section 27, an NGO, said.
“I think we’ve seen a beautiful demonstration through some of the poorest parts of Johannesburg, where many migrant people live and I’ve seen on the faces of migrant people, both on the march, and on the sides of the street, some reassurance that South Africa is not something that is going to murder them and hurt them,” said Heywood.
The march started at the Pieter Roos Park in Hillbrow, a gritty inner-city precinct, known as a hub for Nigerian immigrants in Johannesburg, and later proceeded to an area in the city centre known as Little Ethiopia, before concluding in Newtown.
‘Our blood is one’
One protester told Al Jazeera that she had come to show her support because the violence had directly affected her.
“I am here at this march because I’m a South African but I’m living among Malawian, Zimbabweans and Mozambicans,” said Salma Mazibuko.
“These are my sisters and I like them. Our blood is one.”
Gitacho Abolu, another protester, said he had joined the march to stand with others against xenophobia.
“My Ethiopian brothers have been injured in Durban, and another one has died. We sent his body back to Ethiopia a few days ago,” Abolu said.
South Africa’s reputation has taken a beating internationally following the feverish violence, with a string of African countries, including Malawi, Zimbabwe and Nigeria calling on authorities to act decisively.
On Tuesday, the South African army was deployed to “troubled spots” in areas around Johannesburg, and the KwaZulu-Natal province, in a bid to quell further violence.
Many South Africans, however, have criticised the deployment of the army as a public relations stunt geared to protect the interests of South African businesses across the continent.
Others have also expressed their concerns about the presence of soldiers in civilian areas, but some have welcomed the deployment, as proof of the government’s commitment to quell the violence.
Tensions across the country remain high as immigrants are said to be living in constant fear for their lives.
“So today was just a show of solidarity. The hard work has to be done tomorrow, and the day after, and the months after to make sure that this never happens again,” Heywood said.
The government has pledged to defeat the violence, and secure the lives of foreign nationals living and working in South Africans.
But there is still very little detail of how Jacob Zuma’s administration plans to tackle the root of the problem, seen as gross inequality, unemployment and poor governance.
In Durban, NGOs, including South African Gift of the Givers and Doctors without Borders (MSF) said they were dealing with many cases of trauma in the camps set up for displaced foreigners across the city.
But in Johannesburg, as thousands of people marched, buoyed by cheering onlookers, the tension, and uncertainty that have marred recent weeks, appeared to fade into chants for peace and unity among Africans.
Gauteng Premier David Makhura, speaking after the march in Mary Fitzgerald Square, said his administration would now incorporate a department devoted to the affairs of immigrants living in the province.