The xenophobic attacks on foreigners, including Zimbabweans, that left 3 dead in Alexandra township last week have now claimed over 20 lives after the gangs moved into other areas of Johannesburg over the weekend.
The violence has continued to escalate and more fatal attacks were reported Monday. In the last 3 days hundreds have been injured, thousands left homeless and many raped as the attacks on foreigners spread to the whole of the Johannesburg area, including Germiston, Alexandra, Hillbrow, Ekurhuleni in Boksburg, Thembisa, Thokoza and the Eastrand area.
The South Africa Police Service have said they do not have enough manpower to cover all areas. Police stations have become temporary shelters for thousands of displaced refugees. These tragic events have added another stain on the record of President Thabo Mbeki, who is being blamed for ignoring the Zimbabwe crisis and its effect on his own soil.
Anna Moyo of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum reported that gangs of youths, numbering from 50 to 100, attacked the homes of refugees over the weekend. The attacks were vicious and cold blooded. Moyo said that one gang was photographed by a reporter as they laughed while a victim was burning to death. Many victims were thrown out of windows and dozens have serious back injuries.
The Central Methodist church in Johannesburg where Bishop Paul Verryn shelters about 1000 Zimbabwean refugees, was saved by the police on Sunday. Bishop Verryn said a gang that was making its way towards the church was blocked by police who were patrolling nearby. A local resident had passed by earlier during church services and flashed a gun to scare the parishioners. The Bishop said the divisions between locals and foreigners could have been mended sooner, if the language of the country's leadership had been more welcoming. He said: "The locals believe they are doing what the government is doing anyway, getting rid of the 'illegals.'" He also blamed press reports for painting a negative image of foreigners in their reports.
Zimbabwean organizations based in South Africa have blamed President Mbeki and the South African government for doing nothing, for too long. South Africa's own civil organizations have also pointed to the official policy as contributing to the divisions.
The Zimbabwe Exiles Forum released a statement that said: "There is a pattern to this, and senior government officials who suggest that foreigners are to blame for unemployment, crime and HIV-AIDS do not help the situation, and should be brought to account for their incitement to hatred. Equally responsible are sections of the media that are known to government, and have been writing inflammatory first page editorials against so-called 'aliens'."
The umbrella labour group, Cosatu, conducted anti-xenophobia demonstrations in several cities on Saturday. Cosatu officials made speeches in the local townships appealing to the locals to understand the plight of the refugees. They also explained that unemployment and housing shortages were not the result of the presence of foreigners, but a failure on the part of government to provide for the people.
Fred Bridgland, of the Institute for War And Peace Reporting, described the riots as a "black-on-black ethnic-cleansing frenzy". He said it was a crisis that has been waiting to happen for months and seems likely to escalate. Bridgland said the locals have been growing increasingly angry with their own head of state, President Thabo Mbeki, accusing him of being 'more concerned with appeasing Mr Mugabe than recognising the scale of the problem caused by the flood of Zimbabweans into South Africa'.
South African blame the outsiders for taking their jobs, accommodation and women. The tragic truth is that South Africa's problems are not being caused by foreigners. The country has 40% unemployment, rising food prices and a shortage of housing. The presence of more foreigners just makes a bad situation appear worse.
Mbeki refuses to publicly acknowledge the depth of the problem caused by Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF, but with an estimated 3 million refugees from Zimbabwe alone, and more crossing the border every day, he better wake up to the problem and deal with it. The Zimbabwe crisis is not just about one small country. It's about a situation that is destabilizing the entire region.