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Hundreds of Zimbabweans in S. Africa flee attacks

Two people are slain amid resentment over the presence of foreigners willing to work for little money.

May 14, 2008|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

ALEXANDRA, SOUTH AFRICA — Isaac Moyo left Zimbabwe for South Africa six years ago because it was so hard to survive in his homeland. But after a mob armed with machetes and axes chopped through his door in this township Monday and chased him away, Moyo feels that he has no choice but to go back to Zimbabwe.

Moyo and hundreds of Zimbabweans and other foreigners fled their homes in Alexandra, a teeming crime-ridden township, on Sunday and Monday to escape xenophobic attacks. Some hid in the nearby bush or in police compounds.

"They were saying, 'Go back to Zimbabwe, we don't want to see you here, you're taking our jobs,' " Moyo said Tuesday. "They said, 'Go back to [Zimbabwean President Robert] Mugabe.' They took everything, saying, 'You didn't get this from Mugabe; this is our property.' "

More than 100 foreigners were injured and at least one foreigner and a South African were killed during two nights of violence.

The attacks increase pressure on South African President Thabo Mbeki over his policy of "quiet diplomacy." His administration has avoided direct criticism of human rights abuses by Mugabe's government, even as hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans have flooded into South Africa to escape the economic meltdown and political violence at home.

The presence of Zimbabweans willing to work for as little as $6 a day has sparked resentment among poor in a nation with more than 40% unemployment.

Moyo, 30, and three brothers were living in a shack in Alexandra until Monday night, sending money home to their family in Zimbabwe.

On Sunday night, they had to flee attacks and sleep in the bush. On Monday evening, as he was cooking dinner, Moyo heard loud singing in the street. He knew the mob was back.

"People were singing and celebrating and were chasing foreigners back to Zimbabwe," he said. "They started beating us."

His brother David was hit on the head with a large stick; the wound required six stitches. Moyo does not know where his other two brothers have gone; he and David had their cellphones stolen and cannot call them.

He said the anger toward Zimbabweans had been building in Alexandra for months.

Moyo, a qualified mechanic in Zimbabwe, initially earned about $6 a day as a bricklayer's laborer but now gets $13 a day as a painter. Many South African township dwellers resent some Zimbabweans' better job qualifications and their willingness to work for little money.

Jimmy Matsena, 36, a South African security guard who lives in Alexandra, said he was sickened when he saw a crowd chase a man who was carrying a few blankets and other belongings.

"This xenophobia, it's bad," he said. "People were shouting, 'Mambe! Mambe! -- catch them, catch them, they don't belong here!' "

"People feel angry with Zimbabweans," Matsena said. "People get jealous because they see these people progressing. Zimbabweans are good at crafts and they all speak perfect English."

He said some township dwellers who believe that Mugabe is a cruel leader say it is because of something innately cruel in Zimbabwe's society. They tend to blame South Africa's high crime rate on the influx of Zimbabweans.

The violence this weeks follows a series of violent attacks on Somalis in the last few years, mainly around Cape Town.

"Such acts can only take society backwards and open the wounds of racism and intolerance against which so many of our people fought," said Tiyani Rikhotso, a spokesman for the ruling African National Congress party.

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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