Lifestyle & Belief

World Cup 2010: Fears of xenophobic blacklash


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — This has been championed as Africa's World Cup — hosted by South Africa, but belonging to the entire continent.

Yet many African migrants living in South Africa say they are nervous about the possibility of a deadly wave of violence against foreigners after the soccer tournament ends on July 11, and the international attention disappears.

Rumors that xenophobic violence will erupt after the World Cup have persisted in townships and migrant-populated areas of Johannesburg in the last few months, and advocacy groups say the government needs to do more to address the threat.

“During public meetings, you’ll hear people say, ‘These migrants are taking our jobs, taking our homes.’ Some people even go further and say ‘They’re taking our ladies,’” said Marc Gbaffou, chairman of the African Diaspora Forum, a Johannesburg group that represents migrants from more than 20 African countries.

“They say, ‘After the World Cup, we will show them,’” said Gbaffou, who is from Ivory Coast.

This is a chilling message for African foreigners living in South Africa, a country still reeling from a wave of horrific xenophobic attacks in May 2008, in which 62 people were killed and more than 100,000 displaced. Violence against foreigners has continued sporadically since then, for example with the murders of Somali shopkeepers in townships and attacks by fruitpickers in the Western Cape town of De Doorns, where locals accused Zimbabweans of stealing their jobs.

“We have to take this seriously, when people tell you, ‘After the World Cup we’ll attack you,’” said Gbaffou, whose group was formed after the violence in 20008. “There is fear.”

He worries that Yeoville, where his group is based, could be targeted in an outbreak of xenophobic attacks because of its concentration of migrants. Last month, a street festival featuring costumed dancers and musicians from numerous countries was held in Yeoville to celebrate the area’s diverse African culture and to take a community stand against xenophobia.

Gbaffou said the African Diaspora Forum has been trying to start a dialogue with various levels of governments, to set up communication channels and discuss strategies in case there are attacks. The group recently sent a letter to embassies in South Africa as well as the African Union and Pan-African Parliament, asking them to put pressure on the South African government to talk about this issue.

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“Regrettably, because of the World Cup, the government doesn’t want to talk about something negative. But we have to do something,” Gbaffou said.

"The Elders,” a group of senior world leaders that includes Nelson Mandela, his wife Graca Machel, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and former Ireland president Mary Robinson, has expressed concern about the possibility of renewed xenophobic violence in South Africa, noting at a meeting in Johannesburg last month that dwindling job opportunities after the World Cup might spark violence.

The Consortium for Migrants and Refugees in South Africa has also warned of mounting threats of mass xenophobic violence after the World Cup is over.

“These threats are coming from many different people: neighbors, colleagues, taxi drivers, passersby on the street, but also from nurses, social workers and police officers,” the group said in a press statement. “Worrying, too, is that some of those making the threats believe that they have the support of senior political leaders.”

The South African government last month re-established an inter-ministerial committee to address the threats of attacks against foreign nationals, as well as any incidents that happen.

But Deputy Police Minister Fikile Mbalula has dismissed concerns that there will be attacks after the World Cup and said that in the event of violence, police would come down hard on those responsible.

“We are in charge, not the criminals. This is not a banana republic and we will not allow citizens becoming law unto themselves,” he said in a statement. “We are all Africans and the spirit that was shown in supporting the six African teams participating in the World Cup has been and is tremendous, and it cannot in anyway suggest animosity amongst African brothers and sisters.”

However, one survey shows a high level of negative perceptions of foreign nationals. A recent survey on quality of life in South Africa’s Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, residents of all backgrounds expressed a dislike of foreigners. The Gauteng City Region Observatory survey of 6,636 residents found that 69 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “foreigners are taking benefits meant for South Africans.” Of people with no education, 75 percent agreed with the statement, as well as 73 percent of people with post-high school education.

Duncan Breen, advocacy officer for the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, suggested an important high-profile gesture such as a public condemnation by senior government leaders, from town mayors to the president, of all acts of violence against foreigners.

“This would help dispel the myth that there is tacit support for these threats,” he said.

On a more local level, conflict resolution in townships needs to be strengthened to help deal with issues before they erupt into violence, Breen said.

Another issue is that access to justice needs to be strengthened to deal with the “culture of impunity” around violence against foreign nationals.

Breen said he is continuing to hear from people who are very concerned about violence after the World Cup.

“The fact that people are wanting to go back to Zimbabwe — these are people who are working here and they would give up their jobs to go back," he said. "They are taking it very seriously.”