South Africa's Brutal New Bias ; Seven Immigrants from Other African Nations Have Been Killed in Xenophobic Attacks since April

Article excerpt

Fearing for his life, Zoe Nkongolo fled a ruthless dictatorship in his native Zaire in 1994. The union president, democracy activist, and engineer traveled three days by truck to what he thought would be a haven - South Africa.

Now, six years later, he is again frightened - this time, not because of his advocacy for democracy or freedom, but simply because he is a foreigner.

At least seven foreigners have been killed in xenophobic attacks across South Africa since April. In the most dramatic incident, two brothers from Angola, refugees from their country's intermittent civil war, were beaten up in their Cape Town home then set on fire.

"When I go to the hospital, the doctors ask me why I'm here," said Mr. Nkongolo. "They say I'm taking jobs away from locals. People are very hostile."

Nkongolo is taking part in one of several private and government programs to counteract xenophobia, which is a legacy of the country's isolation under apartheid. Under white rule, South Africa had little contact with its neighbors. Now, suddenly, South Africans are confronted with strangers from faraway countries they know nothing about.

The rise in xenophobia parallels South Africans' increasing frustration with the slow pace of their country's post-apartheid transformation. "South Africans want to find someone to blame for this," said Jenny Parsley, National Coordinator of the Roll Back Xenophobia Campaign. "Unfortunately, foreigners seem to be the scapegoat."

After decades of apartheid, which demonized blacks, disgruntled South Africans are now focusing their wrath almost exclusively on fellow Africans, rather than immigrants from Eastern Europe and Asia.

South Africans commonly blame Nigerian immigrants for this country's high crime rate and drug dealing. Mozambicans are thought of as car thieves. Highly educated Zimbabweans are blamed for stealing jobs away from locals.

A recent newspaper headline trumpeted: "Ruthless conmen (sic) from West Africa see South Africa as a swindler's paradise." The story was about "cut-throat Nigerian crime lords."

When the white government of South Africa fell in 1994, millions of black South Africans, for the first time, became hopeful for the future. They imagined improved schools, housing, and healthcare. They expected better job opportunities.

So did millions of Africans watching north of the border. South Africa has an unemployment rate of about 30 percent - a dismal figure for any Western nation. Nevertheless, this new democracy ranks among the strongest economies on the continent. South Africa's GNP, for example, is 35 times greater than neighbor Mozambique's.

"South Africa is seen as a salvation for many in the region," said Mark Heffernan, acting regional director of the International Organization for Migration. "It is an attraction for people throughout Africa."

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of immigrants have crossed legally and illegally into South Africa over the past six years to share in the promise of a new and vibrant South Africa. …