Fearful Migrants Suffer Anti-Foreigner Violence in South Africa

"An African must save an African," says 50-year-old Begson Lubelo philosophically, as he waits at a makeshift bus stop near Johannesburg’s Park Station for a bus to take him home to Malawi.

One of several thousand foreign nationals fleeing violent attacks by locals in poor townships across the country, Lubelo has been at the bus stop for two days with his wife and two-year-old daughter, without food or shelter. The spreading attacks that started in May left about 60 people dead and tens of thousands homeless.

Originally from Blantyre, Lubelo arrived in South Africa nine years ago. Before the attacks began, he worked as a security guard for a private security firm. His wife and youngest child arrived to join him only two months ago, leaving six other children behind in Malawi.

On Friday 17 May, at about 9 pm, he was at home with his family in Angelo township in Boksburg, east of Johannesburg, when whistles and shouts began some distance away. Locals were gathering to start the attacks, but he didn’t recognize the imminent danger he and his family were facing.

At about 11pm, his neighbourhood was stormed by a large group of South Africans beating up foreigners and tearing down their shacks. He fled with his family into the bush nearby, while his home was ransacked and looted. The family slept in the bush for two days without food or shelter, too scared to return to their neighbourhood where the locals were waiting, threatening to kill any foreigner on sight.

Lubelo finally managed to make a distress call to his boss at work, who picked them up and drove them to the Malawian embassy. At the embassy they were given emergency travel documents. They then made their way to Park Station, where they found thousands of other foreigners waiting to escape.

Lubelo is deeply hurt and angered by this assault, but insists that as an African and a Christian, he would never hesitate to lend a hand to any South African, should the need arise when he returns to Malawi.

But the future is bleak for him and other foreigners, including Malawians, at the Park Station bus stop. Most of them have lived in South Africa for years as an integral part of local communities that have now turned against them. Robbed of all their possessions, businesses, jobs, documents and dignity, now all they want to do is return to the safety of their home countries.

"In Malawi, there is nothing for us, but at least we will stay alive and maybe find something to do later," says one of the Malawians sitting next to Lubelo. "Many of us have no money because everything was stolen during the attacks. People are waiting for friends and family back home to send money so that they can take a bus," he adds.

In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, IOM mobilized initial emergency relief packages that included mats and blankets for 2,000 people displaced by the violence, as well as 500 infant kits, providing parents with some basic necessities to care for their young children.

But the scale of the problem is huge. Just three kilometres from the Park Station bus stop, some two thousand foreign nationals had taken shelter at the Central Methodist Church. "As you can imagine, food, blankets and basic medication are all badly needed," says Godfrey Charamba, speaking on behalf of the group.

The foreigners, who are too scared to go to work, have been surviving with the support of the church and the contributions from local well-wishers and humanitarian organizations, mainly in the form of food and blankets.

But Charamba says that there are also other challenges. "Firstly, the children here need to go to schools or crèches. We need financial support for that. Secondly, with two thousand people crammed here at the church offices, we need counsellors and sex educators, because the potential for sexually transmitted Illnesses to spread in this situation is disturbing. We also need gas for the kitchen, so we can cook food. Finally, the toilets in the building are broken. We have skilled technicians here, so if we can get the materials, we can repair the drains ourselves," he adds.

Adding to the pressure are constant worries over their security. And that of many others in their situation.

Many are bewildered that events like this could happen in a country that was previously held up as a beacon of peace and reconciliation. But there is little doubt that the xenophobic attacks that have rocked South Africa will leave behind scars unpleasantly reminiscent of the country’s violent past.

In a bid to minimize those scars and to help prevent such turmoil again, IOM is working with METRO FM, South Africa’s largest urban commercial radio station and the South African Post Office. The collaboration is to educate the public on the dangers of xenophobia and human trafficking and to raise funds to provide immediate humanitarian assistance to displaced migrants. This initiative is now being taken further with plans for a two-year, USD 1.9 million anti-xenophobia programme to be implemented with government and civil society partners if the funds can be raised.

South Africa, as much as its large migrant community, needs a successful change in attitude towards foreigners. Without it, there is much to lose – on both sides.