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Violence spurs humanitarian crisis

Gretchen Wilson May 30, 2008

Violence spurs humanitarian crisis

Gretchen Wilson May 30, 2008


Kai Ryssdal: In South Africa today, politicans promised to do what they can to help the tens of thousand of migrants affected by the violence of the past month.

Dozens have been killed. As many as 80,000 immigrants have been forced from their homes, most of them in the poorest of townships.

Marketplace’s Gretchen Wilson reports now from one them outside Johannesburg.

Gretchen Wilson: All of South Africa’s tensions pulse in Alexandra — poverty, unemployment and crime. Two weeks ago, this township packed with half a million people convulsed violently.

58-year-old Eliot Sibanda is a house painter from Zimbabwe. He’s lived here 37 years, but on that night, it made no difference.

Eliot Sibanda: I heard the mob outside saying they want people from Zimbabwe. That’s what made me run out of my house, run for my life! It was chaotic.

A wave of opportunistic criminality swept the country. South African taxi owners seized land owned by Mozambicans. Somalis were dragged out of their shops. Zimbabweans saw young men kidnap their wives and children. Looters went wild.

Sibanda: Everyone was screaming and crying. It was gunshots and knocking and bashing in windows.

Many of Alexandra’s immigrants came here, to the local police station. Now, its parking lot looks like a refugee camp. White plastic tents shelter some from the winter rain. Hundreds of men stand in line for some bread and hot tea.

A quarter of South African adults are unemployed and some of them see these poor migrants as competition for jobs and businesses. Before the attacks, many of these immigrants had owned Alexandra’s most successful convenience stores.

Venitia Govender: These are all small businesses. They are not insured, so all of that’s gone.

Venitia Govender is a political and legal analyst in Johannesburg.

Govender: They’re not going to secure another loan or they are not going to be able to restart a business, so they’ve added to the unemployment numbers again.

But it’s not just the migrants who will suffer. South Africans too will now have to travel further to get basic goods and services once provided by these migrants.

Loren Landau is director of the Forced Migration Studies Program at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Loren Landau: And I think what you’re going to see is that the price of food, the price of transport and the price of a variety of other services is likely to go up.

Images of mob violence make foreign investors skittish. They also threaten South Africa’s $1 billion-a-year tourism industry, its biggest generator of foreign exchange.

The economic aftershock will be felt acutely outside of South Africa’s borders, too. Immigrants in South Africa send about $800 million in remittances to their home countries every year. Zimbabwe’s tattered economy is kept afloat by these remittances.

Landau: And if Zimbabweans living in South Africa cannot send money back, the effort to rebuild that country is going to really suffer, and that is going to have economic implications for the whole region.

Now South Africa’s neighbors are struggling to reabsorb the unexpected flood of returning citizens. More than 26,000 Mozambicans have gone home since the violence began, stretching local services to the limit.

Some can’t go back. 36-year-old Adelaide Kongolo is from Mozambique. She and her children now sleep on the floor of the Alexandra police station, where people are starting to get sick from the unsanitary conditions.

Adelaide Kongolo: I need South Africa’s government to help me find a place to stay because everything I have is here. My three children are South African. I don’t have a life in Mozambique anymore.

So she is stuck with no good option. Her shack was taken over by squatters, so going home is unthinkable. And she’s not prepared to face what lies behind the walls of this police station.

In Alexandra, South Africa, I’m Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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