Page last updated at 11:03 GMT, Friday, 16 May 2008 12:03 UK

Refugees flee South Africa attacks

By Caroline Hawley
BBC News, Johannesburg

"Stu" escaped from Zimbabwe in January, crossing the border for the sanctuary of South Africa.

Migrant in Alexandra township
Alexandra township has seen a spate of attacks on migrants

Now - fearing for his life - he's trying to flee back, after a wave of xenophobic violence targeting immigrants in townships around Johannesburg.

"I ran away from the situation in Zimbabwe to try to support my family," says the 24-year old, who is too afraid to give his full name.

"But it's better to starve at home than to die here. At least, if I'm back in Zimbabwe, my parents can bury me and see my grave."

The mob came for him in the sprawling Johannesburg township of Alexandra on Monday night.

"They forced their way into my home with weapons, hammers and bricks. And they took everything I've got. The only things I have left are the clothes that I'm wearing. I don't even know how I'll get home."

"Stu" and hundreds of other foreigners - Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and Malawians - are now sheltering in tents provided for them by the Red Cross on the grounds of Alexandra's police station.

It was at 21.30 on Wednesday night when a group of people attacked Arlindo Nhantumbo, a Mozambican who has lived happily in South Africa for 12 years.

"Ten of them came, with guns, and told me to leave the country. I don't know what to do, because I have married a South African and we have a five-month-old baby boy," he says. "I am desperate."

A flood of refugees

No one has exact figures of the number of immigrants now living in South Africa, but the Institute of Race Relations believes that there are between 3 and 5 million - equivalent to the country's entire white population.

And they have become scapegoats for many of South Africa's social ills - high levels of unemployment, a shortage of housing and one of the worst crime rates in the world.

Remember the horror from which we come from
Nelson Mandela

There has been a spate of xenophobic attacks over the past few years. In 2005 and 2006, Somalis living in the Eastern and Western Cape were targeted.

But the latest wave of anti-foreigner attacks has caused growing concern in the "rainbow nation" which still bears the scars of apartheid, and where some of the country's poor are worse off than they were before the transition to majority rule.

"Violence is not a solution," says Mbuto Mthembu of the Red Cross, which is providing blankets, clothing and food to the refugees.

"We have seen it before in this country and we know just how ugly it is. We don't want to see that again."


And fears of the trouble spreading have prompted intervention from Nelson Mandela.

"Remember the horror from which we come from" he urged South Africans this week.

"Never forget the greatness of a nation that has overcome its divisions. Let us never descend into destructive divisiveness."

Alexandra township
Many South Africans are ashamed at the treatment of migrants

His former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, has also apologised to the victims, during a visit to Alexandra by senior ANC and government officials.

"We are sorry," she said. "It is not South African to do this."

And in the narrow dusty paths between Alexandra's corrugated-roof shacks - where competition for jobs and housing is fierce - there is sympathy, among many, for the immigrants.

"We are ashamed," says 71-year old Sonny Mokoena.

"I was born here and have lived in Alexandra all my life and have never seen anything like this. These people, who fled violence in their countries, are now fleeing again - some with small kids. It's not right."

But the violence has already spread.


On Wednesday, immigrants who escaped Alexandra to stay with friends and relatives in the township of Diepsloot, near Pretoria, were attacked again and their homes looted.

By Thursday, police had sealed off parts of Diepsloot to try to restore order, using armoured personnel carriers - a reminder of policing in the darkest days of apartheid.

The anti-foreigner violence has spread to Diepsloot

"It started with attacks on the people who fled Alexandra," says John Makola, chairperson of the Diepsloot Community Police Forum.

"But today they are chasing every foreigner here, accusing them of being criminals or stealing their jobs. It's appalling."

Papi, 29, standing near barricades blocking the road on the edge of Diepsloot, also condemned the violence.

But he, like many other South Africans, blames immigrants for compounding the country's crime problem.

"There are so many robberies and rapes here and people suspect the immigrants," he says. "So people don't feel safe in their own country."

Ntokozo Msebeni, who came to South Africa from Zimbabwe in 2006, does not feel safe anywhere now.

"A mob came and beat us up and stole our ID cards and our money," she says.

"I have a small child and I have nothing left and don't know what to do."

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