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
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
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
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
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. …