Don Makatile

Don Makatile

With each day that passes, May 11 2008 is becoming a hazy memory in the past and South Africans are going back to the humdrum nature of their lives.

There is no better synopsis of the violent attacks than the introduction to the book Go Home or Die Here - Violence, Xenophobia and the Reinvention of Difference in South Africa: "On the evening of Sunday, May 11 2008, a gang of young men in Johannesburg's Alexandra township forced their way into a hostel on London Road and initiated a merciless attack on residents they deemed to be 'foreigners'. From this spark, the murder, rape and looting directed at the bodies and belongings of non-South Africans had spread within days from Alex to informal settlements in Diepsloot and the East Rand, where a Mozambican man, Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuavhe, was burned alive while bystanders laughed. Soon thereafter, similar attacks began to unfold in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern and Western Cape. South African citizens speaking the 'wrong' languages - Xitsonga or Sepedi, for example - were also subjected to violent assaults.

"By the time the violence subsided in early June, some 62 people had died - a third of them South African. Hundreds had suffered grievous injuries and tens of thousands had been displaced from their homes, taking shelter in community halls and police stations, or fleeing in terror across the borders in anticipation of an uncertain future."

At the height of the violence locals, those with either a conscience or the need to be politically correct, lamented the attacks as un-South African.

A television advert featuring the likes of Sonia Mbele, Lilian Dube, Pabi Moloi and Fezile Makhanya was flighted, bespeaking the violence as a blot on the nation's collective conscience.

Save for attempts like the book Go Home or Die Here, all is forgotten now and people are getting on with their lives.

After dismantling the temporary shelters, the authorities have virtually left the displaced foreigners to their own devices and couldn't be bothered whether or not they have safely reintegrated into the communities they were hounded from.

In fact, says Loren Landau, director of the Forced Migration Studies Programme at Wits University, "six months on, there is little reason to think that this will not happen again. Protecting the rights, dignity and welfare of foreigners must rank near the bottom on the country's list of political priorities, far below debates over our future president and the king protea's position on the Springbok jerseys.

"If the citizenry were only half as impassioned about combating discrimination and violence, we would all be living safer and more dignified lives," he says.

Landau is one of the contributors to the book, along with journalism professor Anton Harber, political activist Andile Mngxitama, academic Noor Nieftagodien and journalist Alex Aliseev.

The foreword was written by the Reverend Paul Verryn, whose Methodist Church building in the Johannesburg city centre offered refuge to the displaced during the volatile period.

But, like the numerous talk shops, this book is as far as the subject of xenophobia goes.

Ramaphosa, the informal settlement in Ekurhuleni where (illegal) immigrants, were "othered" and attacked, remains a no-go area for them.

Landau puts it better: "Despite the initial outpouring of support from civil society, foreigners remain deeply unpopular and largely without voice."

The city fathers in Ekurhuleni have no idea who has gone back. Last month, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) released a report titled Violence and Xenophobia in South Africa - Developing Consensus, Moving to Action.

It does everything but address the issue of reintegration. Its editor Adrian Hadland expresses the same fears as everybody else that the conditions that triggered the violence are still in place. "It could happen again," he says.

As part of the long-term solution, the HSRC suggests that migrants should be represented in the community structures of the areas they live in.

But when they advise that community organisations be used in seeking solutions, Landau wants to hear nothing of it. The very community leaders have been instrumental in fanning the violence.

He says in Alexandra, where his programme did a lot of its work, self-appointed community structures have the loot from the displaced foreigners to buy favour from the locals.

Says Landau: "While local leaders must be part of any way forward, we should be careful in just who we call on to lead our march. When asked what these leaders had done to stop the violence, an Alex resident laughed at my Wits colleague Jean Pierre Misago: "You've got it all wrong ..." he replied, "They were with us all the way."

In an ironic twist, the community forum of Masiphumelele squatter settlement in Cape Town, another hotspot of xenophobia, was given an award for its anti-xenophobia efforts.

The award, conferred by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, took place at a nearby primary school just a day after an Ethiopian shopkeeper was shot dead!

All the Ethiopian did was to dare go back to Masiphumelele.

All the Tshwane metro council knows is that people are back in Mamelodi informal settlements, nothing else.

Landau says reintegration is a fallacy and for the government to claim that they've ensured people are back to their communities is just not true. If anybody has helped the foreigners, it is the international bodies.

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