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'We Are Not Safe at All': Immigrants in South Africa Live in Fear Following Deadly Xenophobic Attacks

An immigrant couple in South Africa tell VICE News they are considering fleeing the country following the latest wave of xenophobic riots which have left seven foreigners dead.
Photo by Themba Hadebe/AP

As a string of anti-immigrant attacks flared through the South African port city of Durban earlier this month, 25-year-old Jessica found herself stuck in her sister's home, scared to set off home with her 7-month-old son. The trip would involve traveling through Durban's central business district, where much of the violence was taking place.

Things only got worse as Jessica, a Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) national, found herself unable to get hold of her husband Richard for several days. She was right to be worried. Richard, a 33-year-old DRC refugee who's been living in South Africa since 2006, had been attacked along with a group of other foreign nationals by a mob at a bus stop.

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His attackers yelled at the immigrants for taking their jobs — a common theme of South Africa's latest wave of xenophobic rioting, which to date has seen seven foreigners killed. The country's 25 percent unemployment rate is a major factor fueling resentment against foreigners, who according to the South Africa Institute of Race Relations number as many as 6 million.

"He was somewhere else and I was somewhere else. I couldn't get ahold of him, he couldn't get ahold of me," Jessica, who asked her last name not be used for fear of future attacks, told VICE News. "It was not easy at all, it was not safe."

For nearly two weeks South African mobs in Durban had been looting and torching immigrant-owned shops, with at least three people having been killed in the violence by the time Richard was attacked on April 10. Later that day a group of men would launch a Molotov cocktail at an Ethiopian-owned shop in the Umlazi township near Durban, sending two workers to the hospitals with severe burns.

The violence continued through the next week, ultimately spreading to Johannesburg, the country's largest city. Photos of a Mozambican man being beaten and stabbed to death in broad daylight on April 18 shocked the country.

Related: Related. Deadly xenophobic Durban riots spread to other South African cities. Read more here.

After the assault, Richard went to the local police station where he hid out for two days with 200 other foreign nationals scared to venture outside amid the ongoing violence. It would take 10 days for the couple to finally reunite at their apartment on the edge of Durban, once the chaos finally seemed to be calming down.

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Now, a week later, Jessica and Richard are contemplating how they will continue to live in South Africa as the fear of more attacks interrupts their daily lives. Immigrants throughout the country are grappling with the same question.

After being condemned by foreign governments for failing to do enough to stop the attacks — reminiscent of riots in 2008 that killed more than 60 in Johannesburg townships — the South African government last week deployed the army and arrested hundreds of people. The violence has mostly been quelled, but sporadic attacks persist throughout the country.

Xenophobia is nothing new in South Africa, still suffering the legacy of apartheid which divided communities not only along racial lines, but also according to ethnicities, tribes, and languages. Immigrants from other African countries are frequently scapegoated for a failing economy and rising crime, not helped by xenophobic statements from national leaders.

Related: Related: Store owner set alight in latest attack on foreign businesses in South Africa. Read more here.

The African National Congress (ANC) General Secretary Gwede Mantashe accused foreign nationals of trying to destabilize South Africa's platinum industry last year, while President Jacob Zuma told a Johannesburg audience in 2013, "don't be like Africans and think like Africans." A call by South Africa's powerful Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini in March for foreigners to "pack their bags and leave" — later supported by the president's son, Edward Zuma, who said South Africa was "sitting on a time bomb with [foreigners] taking over" — has been blamed for sparking the recent wave of attacks.

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As the April violence surged, thousands fled their homes and relocated to refugee camps in the country for shelter. Meanwhile, countries across the continent began to take action into their own hands to help their citizens in South Africa. Mozambique chartered buses to carry its citizens across the border, while Zimbabwe said it planned to repatriate some 2,000 nationals who had requested help.

While condemning those who carried out the attacks, President Zuma said his government was "sympathetic to some of the issues," that motivated them, and has called on other African leaders to help tackle migration issues.

"We cannot shy away from discussing the reasons that forced migrants to flee to South Africa. All of us need to handle our citizens with care," Zuma said on Monday. South Africa did not create the issue of people seeking refuge and life in his country, he said, calling on neighboring countries to look at driving factors at home.

For Richard and Jessica, the solution is not that simple. Richard has not been to work since the morning he was attacked. He travels around selling camera equipment, which requires him to go through townships and business districts, something he does not feel safe doing at the moment. Jessica, meanwhile, says she is scared to take her son Ethan to get medical treatment for fear that a doctor will hurt her child. There are no reports that anything like this has happened, but a constant barrage of rumors and fake violent images have circulated around social media and messaging apps like WhatsApp, stoking more fear.

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Richard said he and his wife want to leave South Africa, but repatriation isn't as easy for them as it is for other fellow immigrants. The DRC has not offered to repatriate its citizens and even if it did, the couple would not take it up. The human rights situation in the DRC is dire, with security forces and various armed groups carrying out frequent brutal attacks on civilians. Human rights groups have criticized the government for its apparent crackdown on opposition leaders and activists as elections near. In January, protests against a constitutional amendment that would have prolonged President Joseph Kabila's rule led to deadly clashes with security forces.

"Right now Congo is not an option," Richard told VICE News, citing fear of politicians and the poor economy. "In Congo it's not safe, your life is endangered."

Financial concerns would also stop Richard returning to the DRC, where jobs are scarce. In South Africa, Richard makes about $300 a month, two thirds of which is sent to siblings back home. Already concerned about what will happen this month while he is unable to work in South Africa, if he were to end up unemployed longterm it would have a devastating effect on him and his family. Richard and Jessica are looking for alternatives to staying in South Africa, such as moving to a country like Mozambique, but affording this will be a serious challenge.

The economic struggle Richard and Jessica are experiencing is not a new one for migrants in South Africa. The senior researcher for Zimbabwe and South Africa at Human Rights Watch, Dewa Mavhinga, told VICE News that undocumented and unskilled immigrants were commonly marginalized.

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"The general experience of immigrants in South Africa is that for the skilled and highly skilled who work and live in well-off suburbs there is general security," he said. "While the poor, unskilled and often undocumented immigrants bear the brunt of xenophobia and marginalization as well as harassment."

Mavhinga highlighted the need for the South African government to help keep immigrants safe and secure. He stressed the need for regional groups like the African Union and the South African Development Community to quickly step in with support, including financial assistance.

"The government of South Africa needs to ensure that there is full protection and alternatives available for those afraid or unwilling to return to their countries of origins," he said. "Repatriation should not be the only viable solution."

He also stressed the importance of bringing perpetrators of xenophobic attacks to justice. "Arresting those who have committed xenophobic violence is a good step, but not enough," said Mavhinga. "There is need for thorough investigations, prosecution and conviction of all those responsible."

Complaints have surfaced that very few people were prosecuted after the 2008 riots and ensuing violence. One of the victims who never received justice was Jessica's father, killed at the end of 2008 in what she claims was a racist attack following the peak of the violence that year. Despite filing a police and autopsy report noting the murder, no one was ever prosecuted. This lingers on Jessica's mind as she contemplates she and her family's next move out of the country.

"You [have to] go because you are helpless — we don't have anything, we're orphans, now our life is in danger," said Jessica. "We are not safe at all."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB