Can South Africa's Foreigner Killings Be Stopped?

It's a chilly Friday morning in the courtyard of Johannesburg's Jeppe police station. Women brush their teeth at the outdoor tap while children shiver in plastic bathing tubs. Moms, babies strapped to their backs, bend over their laundry--every available inch of the metal fence is covered with newly washed clothes. In a space no larger than a tennis court, hundreds of foreigners are taking refuge in this makeshift inner-city shelter. Their meager belongings are covered with scraps of plastic sheeting against the winter rain. "We don't want to stay here," says Josiane Nshimirimana, a 30-year-old mother of two. "We are scared because maybe they will kill us at night."

Nshimirimana is from the Central African nation of Burundi, where a decade of fighting between the Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority left more than 200,000 dead. She and her family fled that fighting and, like so many others in this threadbare camp, came to South Africa in search of a better life. Now she is crammed into a white tent with other mothers and their children at Jeppe after fleeing once again, this time from her home in a Johannesburg suburb. Her husband sleeps outside with the other men. Their dreams, like so many others, have disintegrated in the wave of anti-immigrant violence that has left more than 50 dead and tens of thousands homeless around the country. "We don't like South Africa any more," laments her tentmate and fellow Burundian, Furaha Djuma.

Nshimirimana and Djuma are the vulnerable faces of the horrific attacks that have shocked South Africa. Their plight reflects not just a humanitarian crisis, but a political one, too. Many blame President Thabo Mbeki, now serving out the last year of his presidency, for policy failures that "created a tinderbox of unmet expectations," according to the independent South African Institute of Race Relations. Resentment of foreigners is not new in South Africa. While the post-apartheid government has helped to boost the growth of the black middle class, millions of others still live in desperate poverty. With some estimates putting unemployment rates at close to 40 percent, some locals have become increasingly angry over perceptions that immigrants and refugees are stealing their opportunities. In recent years, this has spilled over into violence against foreigners: according to Yusuf Hassan, a senior spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over the last two years 472 Somalis have been killed and 1,200 injured in what he sees as xenophobic attacks.

The situation worsened this year as rising numbers of Zimbabweans fled political violence in their home country for their more prosperous neighbor in the south. Eventually, the black township of Alexandra, in suburban Johannesburg, served as the fuse for the fire. Angry local residents attacked foreigners they believed had had cut the line for government-supplied housing, triggering a killing spree that soon spread across the nation. Thousands of non-South Africans promptly left the country. But those who didn't have that option are now crowded into temporary shelters, relying on donations from a sympathetic public to keep them warm and fed in the Southern Hemisphere winter.

Yet whatever the latest trigger, experts generally agree that the real cause is South African frustration at the slow pace of post-apartheid change. "We saw xenophobia, but it was really a protest against government delivery failures," says Frans Cronje, deputy CEO of the SA International Institute for Race Relations. He says the ruling African National Congress arrogantly saw its electoral support as a sign that its policies had succeeded. Cronje directly attributes the violence to a series of policy errors on the part of Thabo Mbeki's government--a "perfect storm" of law-and-order problems, weak border controls, corruption, high unemployment, education failures and slowing economic growth. "It's a very corrosive thing," he says. Lots of people are dependent on the state, and when it fails it undermines trust and increases tension."

Pretoria is now playing catch up. It has announced a five-point response plan that includes "re-integration" of the displaced back into local communities; the setting up of special courts to prosecute the 500 arrested so far in connection with the killings and arrangements for acceptable temporary shelters. That may be easier said than done: earlier this week, a group of displaced people stoned a relief vehicle at a makeshift settlement for 700 after hearing rumors that the United Nations planned to take them out of the country. And as the uncertainties continue, the tension festers. "A 'worst possible scenario' has now materialized," wrote the SAIRR's Cronje in a prepared statement. If the government doesn't come up with a "mature and measured" response, he warns, "we should expect that similar unrest could occur with little warning in any area of South Africa." For a country that was once the brightest spot on the continent, that's a sad prognosis indeed.