Magazine article The New Yorker

Struggles

Magazine article The New Yorker

Struggles

Article excerpt

At first glance, the photograph flashed on news reports around the world--an image of a man burning in South Africa, necklaced with a rubber tire that had been doused in gasoline and set aflame--looked like a relic from the days of apartheid. Necklacing was common then: it was the way that enforcers of the revolutionary African National Congress made an example of informers who betrayed their struggle for majority rule. That struggle was finally won at the ballot box fourteen years ago, but the photograph of the burning man was taken last month, as South African mobs tore through the country's townships and shantytowns, hunting down foreigners. The young men who formed the core of the mobs were armed with everything from hammers and whips to machetes and guns, and they were not easily deterred. Even when President Thabo Mbeki, who sat silently by during the first ten days of the pogroms, called out the Army, the violence continued, and once again the photographs of the confrontations recalled the township showdowns of yore: uniformed sharpshooters firing into the throng, albeit with rubber bullets.

Roughly five million of the fifty million people who live in South Africa are migrants from elsewhere on the continent--Malawi, Nigeria, Congo, Mozambique, Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe. They came in the years since apartheid, seeking political refuge or economic opportunity or both, and their presence could be seen as a measure of South Africa's success: the nation that once produced asylum seekers had become a place of asylum. But the banishment of white-supremacist rule did not bring an end to South Africa's divisiveness and inequality; the terms were merely reconfigured. In the place of political violence, the nation has been plagued by one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world. Most of the victims, like most of the perpetrators, belong to the vast black underclass. Rising unemployment (twenty-three per cent nationwide, and two or three times that in the townships) and rising food and fuel prices have led to rising desperation for those chronically excluded from the promises of the new South Africa. The tabloid press and the political demagogues freely blame the social situation on foreigners, and in the last weeks of May more than fifty of them (as well as several South Africans mistaken for foreigners) were killed by the mobs, while more than thirty thousand were driven from their homes, stripped of their possessions, and left to huddle in makeshift camps around churches and police stations or to flee for the borders.

The man in the now iconic photograph was Mozambican; thousands of his compatriots bolted homeward, and the government of Mozambique declared a state of emergency on its frontiers. The great mass of South Africa's foreigners, however, are from Zimbabwe, and for them--some three million people, or a quarter of Zimbabwe's population--repatriation is not an option. They have fled the incessantly escalating hunger, degradation, and violence of President Robert Mugabe's dispensation. In fact, even as they are hounded in the streets of South Africa, more of their compatriots are risking their lives to escape Zimbabwe and join them. In late March, Mugabe, after three decades in power, did not win reelection--this time, he had failed to rig the vote sufficiently--and in the months since, in preparation for a runoff vote on June 27th, he has unleashed his soldiers and militias to run a campaign of systematic terror against supporters of his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai. …

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