ANA DOMINGOES peered out through the metal grille pulled down in front of the grocery shop in Jeppestown that her family has run for 27 years. Her staff gathered nervously around, she eyed the small groups of young men walking down the street towards her.
“These are the ones doing the violence,” she said.
“We’re really scared for our lives — anything is possible. When they come in here they’ll clean the place out and burn it down.”
Jeppestown, a poor area of Johannesburg, has become the epicentre of growing violence against foreigners that began three weeks ago in the eastern city of Durban and is spreading across South Africa, raising the ugly spectre of xenophobia in the Rainbow Nation.
Shopkeepers cowered behind their shutters yesterday as marauding gangs of men ranged up and down the streets of the commercial capital in search of foreigners to attack and businesses to ransack.
Hundreds of policemen have struggled to control the street battles and have resorted to using live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas to control furious mobs.
Groups of men armed with bottles and bricks fought each other on street corners and two men were shot dead in the Jeppe hostel, home to many of those carrying out the beatings, looting and arson.
As the atmosphere has grown more volatile, Malawi and Mozambique have sent buses to rescue their nationals.
Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, whose country is no stranger to political violence, expressed his shock and disgust, adding: “The act of treating other Africans in that horrible way can never be condoned by anyone.”
The attacks have largely been against other Africans from Ethiopia, Somalia, Congo and Mozambique, not against westerners or white South Africans who still dominate the country’s economy more than two decades after the end of apartheid.
Poor, largely unemployed locals have vented years of growing anger at other Africans who they believe are taking work away from them.
They have taken their cue from Goodwill Zwelithini, the Zulu king, who last month called immigrants “lice” and exhorted them to “pack their bags and go”.
Some — though by no means all — Zulus have taken this as a rallying call. “Most of the attackers were coming from the two men’s hostels,” said Mpho Moerane, a community organiser in Alexandra, a township northeast of the centre of Johannesburg that was looted on Friday night.
“The men there are from KwaZulu-Natal and when their king made his comments about foreigners packing their bags, they thought he was talking to them. They started looting shops that belong to Somalis.”
The attacks have raised fears of a repeat of the violence of May 2008 when 62 people, most of them foreigners, were killed, often in gruesome ways such as “necklacing”, where a petrol-filled tyre is put round the victim’s neck and set alight.
The problems that prompted that outburst have worsened in the intervening seven years. Unemployment in South Africa has surged to 36%, one of the highest rates in the world.
Phumlani Percival, a driver, explained the locals’ anger at incomers. “What they are fighting against is cheap labour,” he said.
“They’ll end up jobless, they won’t be able to feed their kids — and they were born in South Africa.”
Particular fury is directed at Nigerians, who are accused of dealing drugs. “They’re killing our young boys and girls,” Percival said.
“They don’t come to South Africa to work, they come to destroy the country. They sell drugs and drive big fancy cars.”
The Somalians, meanwhile, are “terrorists” who bring guns. But of the other African brothers he added: “There’s nothing wrong with them.”
President Jacob Zuma, loudly criticised for not condemning the violence as soon as it began to erupt, cancelled a trip to Indonesia yesterday, saying: “These attacks go against everything we believe in.”
Mmusi Maimane, his main political rival, has been much more vocal, calling for an end to the violence. “Our humanity is slipping away,” he said, before announcing that he would run for the leadership of the Democratic Alliance, the biggest opposition party.
Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop who chaired South Africa’s landmark truth and reconciliation commission to deal with crimes committed under apartheid, said the recent crimes were just as bad as when the country was under white rule.
“Our Rainbow Nation that so filled the world with hope is being reduced to a grubby shadow of itself,” Tutu said.
Apartheid was not the only historical spectre raised by South Africans trying to make sense of the violence.
Cecil Rhodes, the British colonialist whose statue was recently removed from outside Cape Town University, was also held up as an example of the futility of removing historical symbols while not fixing current problems.
“We decry what Rhodes and colonialists did in the past, while treating people as sub-human in the present,” was one comment on Twitter.
Students at the university had protested that Rhodes, the diamond magnate who was responsible for the oppression of thousands of black Africans, should not be celebrated and sparked a wave of vandalism against statues including Queen Victoria’s.
South Africa is facing problems more serious than what to do with Rhodes’s statue, now consigned to a store room.
Yves Nlaba, a Congolese man hiding in a friend’s flat in Durban, described how his wife, who speaks no English, was attacked and locked in the salon where she worked. They said they will leave South Africa as soon as they can.
“They say we’re taking their jobs. I don’t see any jobs,” said Nlaba. “I just want to keep quiet in one place. I don’t want to even take a walk. Just to save my life.”
Published in The Sunday Times, 19 April 2015