Peace Corps Blog

This is a blog of my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer, working in South Africa. My job title is a capacity builder, which means I help increase the effectiveness of a local NGO that does AIDS/HIV related work.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Xenophobic Attacks

I have not updated my blog in sometime, and in light of the recent news coverage concerning South Africa, I thought it might be appropriate to make a short post updating people on the situation here. And I promise a longer, more personal post in the coming few days.

South Africa has been prominent in the world news over the last few weeks. And, as is often the case when an African country gets global media attention, it is the result of violence and unrest. There has been an ongoing set of attacks being carried out against African foreigners living in South Africa. The attacks are taking place in some of the worst-off Townships, where people are deprived of wealth, employment and opportunity. Motivated by a sense of jealousy and a strong feeling of xenophobic, the South Africans living in the areas have raided and chased off foreigners from other African countries, such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe, etc. The perpetrators claim that these foreigners are stealing housing, economic support and jobs that should instead go to South African locals.

The attacks have primarily be concentrated around Johannesburg and the rest of the Gauteng province, but in the last week, they have begun to spread to other poor townships in the North West province, the KwaZulu-Natal province and the Mpumalanga province.

The media here (and, to some extend, abroad) have been filled with graphic images and disturbing accounts of the extreme violence, including machete attacks and ‘necklacing’ (putting someone inside a tire, pouring gas on them and then igniting them). It is remarkably discouraging to hear these stories and see the awful violence that is surging, which has many parallels with the rebellious violence that existed during the end of the Apartheid era. Overall, over 42 people have been killed and at least twenty thousand people have been displaced. Huge refugee camps have been setup at police stations in Johannesburg and daily buses carry thousands of people returning to their home country, with the few things they can salvage from their home before being chased away.

The police have been attempting to control the situation, arresting over 400 people. Last night, in an attempt to bring around an end to the violence, president Mbeki authorized the army to assist the police in quelling the aggression and violence. They are expected to be deployed to the troubled areas today. Ideally, there presence might help bring about an end to the violence and scare people back into a peaceful state. But I fear the situation could just as easily escalate. The deployment of the army can result in increased unease and increased tension, as happened when the Apartheid government start placing larger forces in Townships.

I think that so much of this situation reflects peoples disappointment or sense of betrayal by the ANC government (African National Congress, which took over when Apartheid fell). The ANC made large promises about how South Africa would improve in terms of infrastructure, education and opportunity. And in many ways, the country has come a great distance – good water is available to more people, almost everyone has electricity and the economy has grown greatly. But in the excitement of a Black-led South Africa, the ANC promised more then it was possible to deliver. Combine that with an economic downturn, increased inflation, power outages and a huge influx of immigrants from Zimbabwe (fleeing Robert Mugabe) and from Mozambique, it is easy to see how tension has been continually increasing. The people most affected by these things turn to violence as a way to seek resolution, as that was what people were taught during the Apartheid era. Violence helped end that situation, so people have turned to it again, hoping that it will fix the current situation.

Of course, instead of helping, it is furthering the economic crisis here, driving down the South African Rand, discouraging incoming tourists and jeopardizing the 2010 World Cup (the first to ever be held in Sub-Saharan Africa) – all that, on top of the fact that tens of thousands of people are being displaced, hundreds are being injured and several more killed, where there possessions and shops are being looted. It is a remarkably grim and depressing situation, for a country that has so far achieved reasonable stability and good growth, following such a dark history and colonization.

How does this situation affect me? Beyond what I read in the news, there is little affect. And, to the best of my knowledge, this is true for all the Peace Corps volunteers. Volunteers are not placed in the townships surrounding Johannesburg, because of their already violent nature. Most rural communities do not even have a large foreign population. And on top of that, Americans do not really fall into the same competitive category in which other Africans are viewed. So, as it stands, the situation remains relatively safe for us volunteers. Peace Corps is monitoring the situation, informing us of new developments and, if needed, they will take appropriate steps to help ensure our safety.

For those interested in reading more about the situation, I would suggest: