SOUTH AFRICA: Foreign nationals imprisoned in their homes

Tuesday, May 20, 2008
The linguistic skills of Zimbabwean national Patrick Ndlovu, 29, saved him when he was accosted by three Zulu-speaking men in the Johannesburg suburb of Bezuidenhout Valley.

"If you are a foreigner, you should get down on your knees and pray, because we are going to kill you," they told him, but denials of his nationality in fluent Zulu spared him a beating or worse.

After nine days of xenophobic violence across Gauteng, South Africa's richest province, which have so far left at least 22 people dead, Ndlovu is looking for another country.

He shares a single rooftop room above a four-storey apartment block with a friend from his home town of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city. Since being questioned by the three men on 16 May, he has only ventured a few metres from the building to buy food from a “spaza” shop (home-based convenience store). He has been unable to look for work, and has little money left.

"Maybe I'll go to Mozambique. I’m scared, I really am, but I cannot go back to Zimbabwe," he told IRIN. Ndlovu fled Zimbabwe in 2003, after a suffering a severe beating by ZANU-PF youth militia while studying sound engineering in Zimbabwe's eastern city of Mutare.

He has been deported five times since he first arrived in South Africa, and it would have been more without his flawless command of Zulu, which he said was sometimes convincing enough to deceive Zulu-speaking policemen. But when his identity document is demanded, he has no reply.

The last time Ndlovu was deported to Zimbabwe, on 19 January 2008, instead of turning around and crossing back to South Africa as usual, he decided to visit relatives in Bulawayo, but had to leave after only a few days when the ZANU-PF-aligned veterans of Zimbabwe's liberation war accused him of returning to vote for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party in the 29 March poll.

Johannesburg's eastern suburbs

Johannesburg eastern suburbs, which include Bezuidenhout Valley, Bertrams, Judith's Paarl, Troyeville, Malvern and Jeppestown, have hosted generations of immigrants from all over the world since gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand in 1886. The mix of architectural styles, from a 1905 art nouveau home to semi-detached New York-style brownstone houses, and Victorian mansions, reflect the eclectic style bought by different nationalities during the gold rush.

Mahatma Gandhi lived in Troyeville, as did David Webster, a University of Witwatersrand academic and anti-apartheid campaigner assassinated by a government hit squad outside his Eleanor Street home in 1989.

During the apartheid era, Troyeville, which was designated a white Portuguese-speaking suburb, was known as a "grey area", as both blacks and whites lived there in spite of racial segregation laws.

After South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994, Troyeville and the surrounding suburbs became a magnet for people from Lusophone African countries like Angola and Mozambique; Malawians, Zimbabweans, Somalis, Egyptians, Nigerians and people from a host of other African countries followed suit.

The streets, which a few days ago bustled with business night and day, are now empty. Spaza shops as well as formal businesses, on the advice of police, have closed since the violence began.

Maria Mondane (not her real name), 32, has a second hand clothes business in Troyeville. She grew up during Mozambique's decades-long civil war and came to South Africa in 1992. Her three children were all born in South Africa, but her sons, aged 13 and 8, live in the Mozambican capital, Maputo, with their grandmother and Mondane remits money each month to support them.

Her nine-month-old baby daughter stays with her and her husband and about 45 other people, mainly from Mozambique, on a gold rush-era estate converted into a total of 34 rooms. "Last night the Zulus came and said they did not want to see us here again," she told IRIN. Although there were only three of them, most of the tenants, who are all from Mozambique, have decided to leave. Three South African tenants, a Zulu, a Sotho and a Pedi, are staying.

A booking clerk at a bus terminal that runs services from Troyeville to Maputo, told IRIN that on Sunday and Monday there were no bookings: "I think it was because people were scared to come out of their houses. Today [Tuesday] the buses are full, but it is mainly women and children."

Throughout the day, Mondane and other tenants were removing their few belongings to store in the homes and businesses of South Africans sympathetic to their plight. Mondane said her husband would stay in Johannesburg, because if he left he would lose his job as a panel beater. She would take her baby daughter to Mozambique and then came back, as her business was in Johannesburg. "Anyway, my home is here," she said.

"But just them [the three Zulu speaking men] coming around was enough for us to be scared," said Mondane. That night she took refuge at the nearby Jeppestown police station, along with about 2,000 other foreign nationals, who all slept in the open at the chilly start of winter.

Single-sex mining hostels in the area, built in the apartheid era to provide rudimentary accommodation for about 6,000 migrant mineworkers, now often house around 20,000 mainly Zulu-speaking residents, few of whom work as miners. The traditional Zulu “induna” (originally the leader of a military group) system of control still holds sway in most hostels.

Foreign nationals in the area alleged that hostel residents, who blamed them for taking their jobs, were the main perpetrators of the xenophobic violence in the area.

Although single-sex hostels have been outlawed by the ANC government, plans made more than four years ago by Gauteng's ANC provincial government to upgrade the hostels and turn them into family units have repeatedly been stalled.

An urban city planner who worked on the upgrade plans, who declined to be named, told IRIN that when the time came to implement the hostel renovation project, "It kept on being blocked. The people living in these hostels have been made many promises, but nothing has happened. They are frustrated."

He said money was being spent on multibillion rand projects in preparation for the 2010 Soccer World Cup, such as the improvement of sports stadiums and the Gautrain, a high-speed rail link between Johannesburg's international airport, the middle-class suburbs in the north of the city, and Pretoria, "but this is not benefiting people on the ground."

President Thabo Mbeki's government has placed great store on hosting the 2010 World Cup and has referred to it as an event for the continent because it is the first time the football jamboree will be held in Africa. Ellis Park, also in the city's eastern suburbs and the centre of a sports precinct billed as the World Cup's front garden, will host major football fixtures, including a semi-final match.

As one businesswoman in the area wryly remarked to IRIN: "The way things are going, by the time the World Cup comes here, there won't be any Africans left from the continent to watch it."