A recent Sunday stroll with his girlfriend ended with a mugging and beating for Sheik Mohammed, a refugee from French-speaking Cameroon. The men who attacked him didn’t like his accent.
Mohammed was verbally abused, robbed of almost $100 and his cellular phone, and punched until he fell to the ground.
“They said, ‘You are a foreigner,’ ” recalled Mohammed, 33, who came to South Africa 18 months ago. “ ‘You take our sisters. You take our jobs. You take everything from us. Go back to your country.’ ”
Mohammed didn’t report the incident to police. There would have been little sympathy from the law enforcement authorities, he says, just more hassle.
His story is not uncommon.
Durban, which this month will host the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, is a thriving subtropical industrial port city in KwaZulu-Natal province and has been a natural draw for migrants from other countries in Africa.
But many newcomers complain of being intimidated, harassed and physically abused, primarily by black South Africans.
Since the country’s racist system of apartheid was dismantled in 1994, the dividends of democracy have been slow in coming. And increasingly, black South Africans’ frustration is manifesting itself in the form of resentment toward foreigners--particularly blacks from elsewhere on the continent.
These migrants include penniless refugees fleeing war or poverty, students seeking higher education, and small-scale business owners looking to take advantage of opportunities for trade and commerce.
Despite the indignities suffered under apartheid, South African blacks have tended to harbor a feeling of superiority over other Africans, taking pride in their country’s developed infrastructure and its avoidance of the civil wars and widespread ethnic infighting that have plagued much of the rest of Africa, analysts say.
As a result, they often blame newcomers for the country’s high crime rate, the rampant spread of AIDS and other diseases, and for threatening the nation’s general stability.
“South Africans have not received delivery of economic and social benefits from the state at the pace they expected to,” said Vincent Williams, a senior program manager with the Cape Town office of the Southern African Migration Project, a research group that helps governments in the region formulate policy for managing migration. “We can no longer blame an apartheid regime. So therefore, foreigners have become scapegoats.”
Other Africans have borne the brunt of much of the hostility from South African blacks because, in general, many of these migrants share the same social status and are more likely to come into contact with them on a daily basis, Williams and other social commentators say.
That’s not to say that black foreigners don’t face prejudice from whites, Indians and mixed-race citizens of South Africa’s so-called rainbow nation. Though unofficial, segregation is still entrenched, and poor Africans are more likely to find work and accommodation alongside South African blacks, who remain among the country’s most deprived.
“South Africans appear to be comfortable with foreigners from Europe and Asia,” said Karthy Govender, a human rights commissioner and attorney. “They don’t perceive a problem. I suppose it’s economic. People at the bottom rung perceive their jobs to be threatened by foreigners. And their response has been vicious.”
Legal migrants and asylum seekers say that what makes matters worse is that their work permits are often not recognized by many of the city’s Indian employers. And white bank managers won’t allow them to open accounts, they say.
“There is a report coming in every day regarding an incident of xenophobia,” said Ibrahim Hassan, coordinator of International Refugee Services, or IRS, an aid group. “Local South Africans have a very bad opinion of refugees. Many [refugees] have been attacked. Others have been killed.”
IRS officials have recorded 35 deaths of refugees in xenophobia-related incidents since 1998. The number of assaults is undoubtedly much higher, Hassan says, because migrants rarely report attacks to the authorities for fear of suffering further indignities at the hands of law enforcement officials or being asked to produce residency documents they may not have.
There are more than 271,500 legal immigrants from other African nations in South Africa, according to government data. Thousands of other migrants are unregistered.
Often unable to get work permits or formal jobs, even if they possess the necessary papers, African migrants--many of them highly trained academically--resort to street trading or menial work.
Mohammed, the Cameroon refugee, supervises the IRS homeless shelter. When he arrived in South Africa, he approached several Islamic organizations, bearing certificates attesting to his completion of Islamic law studies in Saudi Arabia, his ability to teach the Koran and his fluency in Arabic. He says his services were rejected each time on the grounds that he didn’t speak Urdu--a language used by many Muslims of South Asian origin in this country--and was not a South African citizen.
Charles Mbuya, 26, who used to work as a nurse in his native Congo, now scrounges for tips watching people’s parked cars.
“I am not happy,” said Mbuya, who arrived in Durban in March. “I studied in my country. I am an educated person. But here I am jobless. It’s painful. I accept it because of the war in my country. Bu if there was a very strong peace in Congo, I would go back.”
Williams and other analysts say many South Africans rely on misconceptions and stereotypes when making judgments about African migrants.
For example, it may appear that migrants are stealing jobs, but some of the responsibility lies with employers who prefer to hire illegal immigrants, knowing they are unlikely to complain about low wages or other exploitation.
Also, not all Africans who come to South Africa are refugees or asylum seekers fleeing wars or persecution at home. Many are registered as students or businesspeople.
A 1997 study conducted by the Southern African Migration Project found that foreign Africans who owned businesses in the country created an average of two jobs for South Africans.
“There is no scientific proof, clearly argued, properly matured and reasonably researched that [migrants] are a drain on the economy,” said Govender, the human rights commissioner.
“There are open opportunities for everyone, whether it’s in street trading or formal trading,” said Nomusa Dube, speaker for the Durban City Council. “If we [South Africans] are not creative enough to see the opportunities and grab them, then other people will.”
Daniel Goshu, an Ethiopian who co-owns a shoe shop in downtown Durban, says his six years in South Africa have been so stressful and filled with harassment and derision from local blacks--his main customers--that he is contemplating packing up and going home.
“Even if you are investing in South Africa and helping the country, it doesn’t seem to matter,” Goshu said. “Generally, it is not good for [black] foreigners in this country.”
Victims of xenophobia, and some political observers, accuse the South African government of failing to speak out against foreigner bashing.
Govender says the country is still struggling to deal with the legacy of apartheid.
“When you have a situation like South Africa, and the history we have come from, there is a tendency to focus on racism and the vestiges of racism,” Govender said. “And hence, I think, sometimes with xenophobia, the topic tends to fall off the table.”
IRS Chairman Omar Osman Riberia, a Kenyan, believes that South Africans are missing out on a unique opportunity for social and cultural integration. Their intolerance, he says, has dashed the hopes of many African migrants.
“When [Africans] come to South Africa, it’s just like going to America to look for the American dream,” Riberia said. “But they only get disappointment. Our ‘American dream’ has been crushed here in South Africa.”