MOZAMBIQUE: Returnees at a loss after fleeing South Africa

Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Orlando Pereira and Agostino Antônio Bila are two of the more than 26,000 Mozambicans who have fled South Africa and returned to their country of origin with little more than stories of hatred.

Pereira, 20, hawked washcloths and dishtowels in Jamestown, a small town in South Africa's Eastern Cape Province, while Bila, 17, sold CDs in Pretoria, about 50km north of Johannesburg.

Both have now returned to Chamanculo, a sprawling township on the outskirts of the Mozambican capital, Maputo, driven home by an outbreak of xenophobia that has left 56 people dead, most of whom are thought to be Mozambicans.

The young men sat at a table in a small bar, passing around a bottle of locally produced gin, and told IRIN how their homes were burnt by mobs, and about their journey to safety.

"They invaded the suburb where we were and ordered us out, saying that there are no jobs for them because Mozambicans accept little money for a lot of work," said Bila, who was staying with his sister-in-law in Pretoria. "They said, 'We only want the Machanganas,'" a slang term used by South Africans for Mozambicans. He has since lost touch with his sister-in-law.

Asked about their future, the men shrugged and said they hoped to find work in Mozambique. "I'm not going back," said Bila. "I'm staying right here."

Amid the blind hatred there were incidents of kindness: Donaldo Ramos Paz Amade, 20, said a South African neighbour allowed him to store his possessions at his house before his own dwelling was razed.

"My boss [in South Africa] gave me his phone number and said to call him if things get better and he will come pick us up," said Amade, who worked in construction for two years. "I'll go back to get my things, but to work, no."

Mozambicans have a long tradition of working in South Africa, even during the apartheid years, and are viewing the treatment of their fellow citizens with a sense of betrayal. "Ingratos" (ungrateful people) said the headline of the latest edition of a Mozambican weekly newspaper, Savana.

At a concert in Maputo on Friday, pop singer Stewart Sukuma denounced the xenophobic violence and referred to the high cost Mozambique bore by hosting South Africa's guerilla armies when they were fighting apartheid. The audience applauded when he asked: "Have they forgotten who helped South Africa in its struggle to free itself?"

But beyond the condemnation of South Africa's violence against foreigners, in which some people were burnt alive while those watching laughed callously, there was trepidation that the wave of returnees, who arrived with little more than the clothes on their back, would aggravate the problems at home.

Crime wave fears

The predominant concern of Maputo residents was that crime would increase, particularly in the capital's suburbs, where many of the returnees have arrived.

"It's necessary to know that unemployment is one of the premises that can put people on the path to practicing illicit acts for their survival, and we have to gather our forces so that this doesn't happen," Vice-Minister for the Interior, José Mandra, told the local news agency, MediaFax.

Antônio Bonifacio, spokesman for Mozambique's Institute for the Management of Calamities (INGC), which coordinated the transport for the returnees and set up a resettlement centre, said only 18 people were still there on 25 May. "It's just a transit centre," he said. "People arrive, get in a car and go home. We give them a ride and a meal."

According to MediaFax, even Mozambicans working on South Africa's mines and housed in compounds, fearing invasion by xenophobic mobs, were pleading with their employers to let them return home until the situation calmed down.

MediaFax reported that J.C. Gold Mine, on Johannesburg's East Rand, had suspended its operations and allowed 190 of its Mozambican miners to return home after mobs attempted to assault them at their compound on 18 May.

Mozambican government officials were reportedly in discussions with the owners of the East Rand Proprietary Mine (ERPM), in Boksburg, to repatriate another 700 miners, who were currently under police protection. An estimated 72,000 Mozambicans are employed in South Africa's mining industry.

Malawi and Zimbabwe

Jeffrey Kanyinji, principal secretary in Malawi's ministry of information, reportedly told an international news agency that "As of now, 3,000 Malawians have registered to return home. The number may increase, depending how the situation settles down in South Africa." The first busload of people arrived in Blantyre, the country's second city, on 26 May.

The International Organisation for Migration, quoting estimates by the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said about 25,000 Zimbabweans had fled to Zambia to escape the economic chaos and political crisis in their home country, and thousands more were seeking refuge in other Southern African countries.

Estimates of the number of Zimbabweans in South Africa range from one million to more than three million; a consequence of unemployment rates of more than 80 percent and recent post-election violence.

According to reports, about 80,000 to 100,000 foreign nationals are thought to have been displaced by the outbreak of xenophobic violence 16 days ago in South Africa.