Thousands of Zimbabweans flee murderous South African mobs

Thousands of Zimbabweans ­living in a township outside Polokwane, Limpopo, fled this week following the most serious wave of xenophobic violence to hit South Africa in recent months.

The purge included the killing of Zimbabwean Godfrey Sibanda, who was ­cornered by a mob and stoned to death on Monday night in Extension 75 of ­Seshoga township, northwest of Polokwane, while walking home from work.

Six RDP houses in Extension 71 which had been rented to Zimbabweans were ­also torched by large mobs.

More than 3 000 other Zimbabweans fled to hide in nearby bushes.

Sibanda was accused of raping a five-year-old girl and for being behind other criminal acts in the area, which included the murder of a couple last week and ­robbing a security guard.

The police said they had heard of the incidents, but had no record of these ­alleged crimes being reported to them.

The day after Sibanda was killed, more Zimbabweans were attacked and evicted from their homes by locals who dumped their blankets, bags and other belongings on the street.

Those who escaped unharmed were ­being sheltered at the ­Seshego police station with their families. They said that more than 3 000 of their fellow countrymen were displaced.

They were scared to go to the police ­because they thought the police were working with the community, said Christopher Manyanhaire (27). He was evicted from his home with his sister, three-year-old nephew and brother-in-law.

He said that the mob caught his sister, Locadia, after she tried to escape through the window.

“They were at the door trying to kick it down but I was holding it while my sister tried to escape, but they caught her and beat her until the police arrived,” he said.

Manyanhaire, whose family was among those at Seshego police station, said ­locals had complained about Zimbabweans getting state houses cheaply from owners who rented them out.

“They have no right to be living in an RDP house because it’s for us South Africans,” said Paulina Makokwane, a South African whose house is surrounded by three Zimbabwean-occupied houses that were torched on Tuesday.

On Tuesday evening, City Press ­witnessed a group of close to 200 people ­going from house-to-house looking for ­Zimbabweans.

Provincial police spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi said one person was ­arrested for arson and they were still ­investigating the murder case.

Fungai Chingorivo, who was part of the evicted group at the police station, said she and her husband had lost everything they had worked for since coming to South Africa in 2008.

“We don’t know what to do now. We have no money and going back home to Zimbabwe empty-handed is pointless because our children and families are suffering,” she said.

By Thursday morning, there were 20 displaced families at the police station with some of their belongings which they had managed to save.

More were expected to arrive and the police have called in local disaster-management officials to help with shelter.

ANC Limpopo spokesperson David Masondo said the party was “disappointed” at what had happened and that it was symptomatic of economic stress in both Limpopo and Zimbabwe.

On Friday, the Daily Sun reported that a Zimbabwean man was stabbed to death in Belmont Park near Cape Town on Wednesday in an alleged xenophobic ­attack.

In Botshabelo, Free State, two Bangladeshi shop owners were assaulted and stabbed on Thursday while sleeping in their shop.

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The news last week that a Zimbabwean man was stoned to death in Seshego, Limpopo by a gang of locals has highlighted ongoing attacks on foreigners. Although such incidents are painted by authorities as isolated incidents of crime, migrant bodies say this is far from the truth.

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It is a view that goes against the picture painted by the Interministerial Committee (IMC), headed by Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa to combat threats of violence against foreigners.

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The committee, set up to respond to xenophobic attacks that swept the country in 2008, was re-established after threats of renewed attacks against foreigners emerged during the World Cup last year.

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Convened by Mthethwa on agreement of the cabinet, the IMC included the ministers of Home Affairs, Social Development, State Security and Basic Education, said Police Ministry spokesman Zweli Mnisi this week.

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Mnisi acknowledged that the government had been unprepared for the 2008 attacks.

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He said the government’s “ongoing campaign” had “never stopped” and drew on the lessons of the 2008 attacks.

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The multi-faceted and integrated plan, which includes “the pro-active facilitation of a societal dialogue”, sounds good on paper.

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But some representatives of migrant bodies say they are unable to feel its impact.

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Gabriel Shumba, the executive director of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum based in Pretoria, is among those who feel the government’s plan to combat the problem is unsatisfactory.

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“I have a problem with the government’s reactive responses. The campaign should be pro-active,” said Shumba.

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He echoed the call by Nedessomin Dosso, national co-ordinator of the Co-ordinating Body for Refugee and Migrant Communities, based in Joburg, for a continuous, robust and ongoing campaign. Like Dosso, Shumba wants to call xenophobia by its name.

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However, Mnisi says that “once you start talking about xenophobia and Afrophobia, you are talking about semantics.

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It (the crimes against foreigners) is crime disguised under xenophobia”.

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Dosso disagrees. “This… criminality (when it applies to crimes against foreigners) is just a consequence of xenophobic attack. It is a xenophobic act that can become a crime.”

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This view is echoed by Shumba. “You cannot deny xenophobia. It is not an ordinary crime.”

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He said the attack on the Zimbabwean in Limpopo occurred because he was a foreigner.

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“It should not be seen as a random criminal act as long as there is a foreign dimension.

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“If you interpret it that way, you are minimising the gravity of these crimes and make it difficult for the government to take the right decisions to deal with these crimes.”

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In July last year, Mthethwa announced that the IMC would reinforce civic education in society and within the law enforcement agencies.

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He promised an extension of the 2010 World Cup National Joint Committee, and foreigners were assured of the swift policing and justice approach that was witnessed during the World Cup.

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“Our law enforcement agencies will not hesitate to act speedily and decisively against anyone found to incite violent acts against foreign nationals,” said Mthethwa at the time.

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But Dosso said of the government’s campaign: “We as migrants are not feeling it.

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“They could help us establish a national body to counter xenophobia and make it really vibrant.

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“They must be more visible, have an advocacy leg and a robust, ongoing campaign.”

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Gabriel Hertis, the secretary-general of the Migrant Community Board based in Joburg, said: “The government is making an effort but it does not trickle down to the bottom.

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“Police are asking the migrant community board for activities and projects we can create so we can work together and encourage interaction.”

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He said such efforts had, among others, given rise to a football game between the Bangladeshi community and the police in Gauteng being planned for July.

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Hertis said there was a xenophobia body in the province and the board had met “with every cluster commander”.

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“I know that at a leadership level they try to understand, but at a lower level ordinary members of the police are fuelling it (the violence). They take instructions from members of the community such as the Greater Gauteng Business Forum. They listen to them and take decisions about foreigners.”

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Alphonse Munyaneza of the UN High Commissioner For Refugees in Pretoria said: “The only response that has a strong impact is a police law enforcement response, but we need all the other departments to come in.

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“The phenomenon of attacks against foreigners is more acute in some places than others.”

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However, he spoke of progress in Motherwell, near Port Elizabeth, where people whose shops had been looted and who were attacked were being integrated back into the community.

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“I see a solution put in place but I don’t see it everywhere,” said Munyaneza.

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“You can argue about the semantics. Basically, the UN High Commission for Refugees is happy with the government – we are listened to and the police are always willing to react and to prevent.”