South Africa’s burning man gives lie to African unity

May 25th, 2008 - 9:34 am ICT by admin  

By Clare Byrne
Johannesburg, May 25 (DPA) Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) councillor Innocent Gumbi is careful to attribute all his remarks about African migrants to the residents of Denver men’s hostel, a workers’ compound in eastern Johannesburg dating to the apartheid era. “They say foreigners are getting ID books more quickly than the original people of this country,” he says, standing in an open corridor on the first floor of the red-brick compound, overlooking a rubbish-strewn courtyard.

“They say the foreigners are responsible for drugs, especially the Nigerians, and for taverns with strip-shows where mothers and daughters are naked through the night,” he adds, warming to his theme.

Mhamuli Khumalo, a father of three, who has lived in the hostel since 1995, cuts to the chase: “This thing (the xenophobic violence) is not nice but we are unemployed and the foreign nationals are mostly employed. They must go back home.”

In two days South Africans will celebrate the establishment 45 years ago of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the precursor to the African Union.

At a concert in Johannesburg, musicians from across the continent will celebrate the OAU’s ideal of promoting solidarity between inhabitants of the Dark Continent.

But the mood itself is likely to be dark as spectators reflect on how the events of the past two weeks in South Africa have exposed African solidarity as a fallacy.

“Africans have never liked one another,” a columnist in the Mail and Guardian weekly newspaper said bluntly, while “the people of Johannesburg, of all places”, didn’t “know better”.

South Africa’s leaders also seem to find it difficult to believe their countrymen don’t know better.

One after another political leader has condemned the killing of 43 people, mostly African migrants, and displacement of 25,000 others, as the work of opportunistic “criminals” and not real xenophobes.

Still others like National Intelligence Agency director Manala Manzini have dusted down to widespread disbelief, the hoary old theory of a right-wing white “third force”.

The term was coined during apartheid for the then minority white government’s hidden hand in factional fighting between the mainly Zulu IFP and Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC).

“We believe that as South Africa prepares for another national election early next year, the so-called black-on-black violence that we witnessed prior to our first election in 1994 has deliberately been unleashed and orchestrated,” Manzini said.

But Gumbi’s remarks about ID books and strip clubs point to a deeper disconnect between the African nationalism espoused by South African President Thabo Mbeki and the prejudices, born out of disillusionment, of poor South Africans.

In the 14 years since the end of apartheid, Khumalo has never had a steady job.

The camp bed in the room he shares with five other men (one-bed fits three-one man underneath the bed, two on top sleeping “tops and tails”) has no mattress, just a wire frame and two blankets.

There is no hot water for the around 6,000 men in the building, where half are out of work and many spend the weekends drinking.

Conditions such as these - combined with a culture of street protests -provoke dozens of violent protests each year in South Africa that never make international headlines.

Most are aimed at local government, but in the past few years the millions of African migrants that have flocked to South Africa in search of work have become a target. Two Zimbabweans were killed by a mob in the Pretoria area in March.

What has change is the scale and ferocity of the attacks.

“I felt ashamed,” a photographer with a local newspaper said after watching residents of Ramaphosa squatter camp shake with mirth at the sight of a man slowly burn to death after being set alight.

A few details about the man, whose flaming silhouette snuffed out the moral beacon of the Rainbow Nation, began to emerge Friday.

He was from Mozambique, he and his friend (who was stabbed and beaten to death) had arrived in the camp barely a month ago and they returned home each night, their overalls splattered with paint, the Star newspaper reported.

No one, however, seemed to know their names.

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