Current race riots like 1949 anti-Indian riots: South African minister

May 25th, 2008 - 3:11 pm ICT by admin  

By Fakir Hassen
Johannesburg, May 25 (IANS) The current xenophobic crisis in South Africa is comparable to the 1949 Zulu-Indian riots, the country’s Minister of Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils has said. “I liken it to the anti-Indian mayhem that erupted in Durban in 1949,” Kasrils told the Sunday Independent here in an interview, as he called on people to accept that describing the current situation as one of xenophobia was accurate.

“I accept that we have had a spontaneous outburst of xenophobia here - and I don’t know why people have trouble with that word: it’s accurate for what’s going on.”

Kasrils explained his reasoning for comparison to the ethnic violence in 1949, when Zulus and Indians who had lived peacefully side by side for decades in the sprawling Durban suburb of Cato Manor, clashed.

“The trigger there was that a little (Zulu) boy allegedly stole an orange from an Indian trader, who then slapped the boy in the face. And those were times when food prices had just gone up and people were suffering economic pressure. The same as now.”

Kasrils did not deny that there were probably other forces at work, as has been alleged in many circles. “You can’t divorce what’s happening with food prices, for example, from the present anger. Nor can you divorce all the other economic and financial factors and policies.”

“There are opportunists who see a chance of getting rid of business opposition, there are local politicians who see a chance of garnering local power, and there are powerful criminal elements.”

Kasril’s statement appears to give credence to suggestions in some circles that certain elements in society were exploiting socio-economic factors such as anger at poor service delivery for locals by government, high unemployment and escalating costs of food and fuel that were behind the current wave of violence that has wracked South Africa for the past fortnight and seen more than 25,000 migrants and refugees returning home, mainly to neighbouring Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

South Africans, living in squalor in informal settlements that have sprung up all over the country near urban areas for the past two decades, accuse the migrants of taking their jobs by being prepared to work for less. They also claim that migrants have jumped queues to take advantage of alleged corruption among officials here to take over state housing intended to alleviate the situation of the locals.

To some extent, Kasril’s comparison is correct.

The 1949 riots were also against the backdrop of several socio-economic factors that were looking for a “trigger” to start action. There was widespread unemployment; food prices had risen rapidly; and the local African populace accused South African Indians, by then a third generation already, of exploiting them with rentals for the properties that the Indians owned.

In spite of the peaceful daily interaction between the Indian and African residents, who lived in close proximity to each other, racial tensions did exist, which were then set ablaze by the single incident of a slap to a child. In the aftermath of the riots, hundreds of Indians fled Cato Manor, many never to return to the homes set up by their forebears who arrived in Durban as indentured labourers since 1860.

On a lesser scale, the African-Indian tension caused by socio-economic issues was repeated in 1985, when the apartheid-created suburb of Phoenix, housing almost exclusively Indian South Africans, came under siege from African neighbours from Inanda, an area where both groups had co-existed for decades as well until forcibly separated by the apartheid government.

In the aftermath of four days of violence that left 40 African and two Indian citizens dead, the Phoenix Settlement, the historic former home of Mahatma Gandhi, was also torched and eventually taken over by informal settlements, never to be returned to its original glory despite interventions by both the South African and Indian governments to do so.

Although less severe in its intensity and of much shorter duration, the 1985 incident also saw hundreds of South African Indian residents fleeing their homes and shops as elders in the community reminded them of the 1949 riots.

In the current situation, South African Indians have been largely unaffected by the violence, the only exception being the death of a photographer, Keten Singh, in Actonville, east of here, allegedly by a mob from a neighbouring hostel who set his home alight last week.

Local Indians have long since moved out of black townships, where once many ran thriving general dealer shops. That function has largely been taken over in the past two decades by Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Somalian immigrants.

As the attacks on foreigners in townships intensified last week amid rumours that they would be next to come under attack, these shopkeepers pulled down the shutters and fled the areas, though many reported that their shops had been looted by the rioters.

The communities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia are all close-knit, with a strong support structure, so no nationals of these countries are being found in any of the urgent aid settlements that have been established outside police stations and churches across the country.

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