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Refugee Rights News
Volume 4, Issue 5
July 2008

"It's Like You Don't Exist”: Foreigners still searching for solutions two months after the xenophobic violence in South Africa

As usual, media attention has quickly shifted away from the violence that took place across many parts of South Africa against foreigners in May, which left over 60 people dead and tens of thousands displaced. Yet, little has been done either to address the consequences of the violence or its root causes, leaving thousands in a state of ongoing secondary displacement. As one displaced person said:

The violence here might have stopped, but there are still insults to foreigners. They just don’t respect us. The moment you call a group of human beings a name, then they make us something inferior. It’s like you don’t exist.

This comment was made by a Zimbabwean man who is one of 21 people living in a church hall in a suburb of Cape Town. The majority have been living there for almost two months, brought from the Home Affairs office in the centre of Cape Town by bus a few days after they fled their homes during the outbreak of what is commonly referred to as xenophobic violence. They live in one large room, which is covered with mattresses and a few belongings, trying to stay warm through the Cape Town winter. These are the individuals that make up this recent tragedy, and for whom solutions desperately need to be sought.

One man told his story. He fled to South Africa from Zimbabwe in March 2007: “I was a student activist but it became too dangerous for me to stay.” He did not cross at an official border crossing because “we had to hide from the police. I traveled in the back of a truck, that’s how we have to do it. The police around there, if they find you, even if you have asylum papers they will just tear them up.” Apparently it is the same in most areas near the border with Zimbabwe, as those seeking asylum are immediately put under pressure to return. He then came to Cape Town because he had heard it was easier to get asylum papers – or rather application forms for asylum, which many of them referred to as their asylum papers: “the asylum papers are just the application for asylum. They allow us to stay while we’re waiting…. It can take up to one year, two years.” He then went to stay in a nearby township and found a job. “But then the trouble started, the South Africans organized themselves and started grabbing our people. They were saying, “you’re taking our jobs, our women, we just want to kill you. They were in the next street; I could hear them going door to door. So I just ran. I have never been back.”

When asked why the violence happened when it did, one man commented:

It has been happening all the time before ever since I arrived. South Africans have always been calling us kwerekwere – it means foreigner… You see, people coming in are coming for refuge and we work hard while they’re lazy. They just start grabbing everything you’ve worked for, they take everything.

As another man said,

It was just an excuse for crime. They knew if they looted from us the police wouldn’t stop them. They are just fond of crime. In fact most of them just followed a few guys, those ones who are not educated. Even South Africans were affected, even some were killed. Like some foreigners have married South Africans so they just came and hurt them. Also if they were not Zulu, Xhosa or Sotho then they were also called kwerekwere.

Since taking refuge in a church hall, none of them have returned to their homes even to retrieve their belongings:

It’s not safe to go home. If in the first place people chase you out, they don’t want you back. These people feel very powerful. Only a few were arrested and the police don’t even listen to us because we’re foreigners. They won’t do it to their brothers. They are even xenophobic and sometimes they make fun of you and intimidate you.

In addition to having lost their homes and belongings, many have also lost their jobs – many employers are worried that there might be fighting between foreign and South African workers.

So what are the long-term prospects for this displaced group? For the Zambian man, he is planning to return home as soon as he can raise enough money to start a business back home. They talked of how many of the Zambians, Malawians and Mozambicans had also returned home. But those from Zimbabwe talked of how they have little choice but to stay. As one man said,

This violence has discouraged more people from coming to South Africa, except for Zimbabweans – there are more coming all the time because there has been more violence in Zimbabwe. At least the violence is better here than in Zimbabwe because here it is the people not the government making the violence.

In the meantime, as his friend said, “it’s like you don’t exist."