Zulu king under pressure to quell xenophobic violence

2015-04-19 15:00

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As refugee centres continued to fill up amid tension and intimidation in some areas in South Africa, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini was finally strong-armed into acting after a series of meetings with provincial and national government leaders.

The fallout from Zwelithini’s call on foreigners to pack their bags and leave was also spoken about by the ANC provincial executive this week, with most members backing a call for the king to be asked to address the public directly in an effort to defuse the situation.

Zwelithini has now called an imbizo in Durban for tomorrow, where he is expected to call for an end to xenophobic attacks.

President Jacob Zuma, who cancelled his trip to Indonesia to deal with the crisis, yesterday paid a visit to the Chatsworth refugee centre in Durban, where mainly Malawians, Zimbabweans and Mozambicans have been accommodated since being driven out of their homes.

He told the foreigners that government was not forcing them to go, but would provide transport to repatriate those who wanted to leave. Those who wanted to stay, he said, would get help to return to their communities.

“We are not fighting with you as government. Not every South African is saying you must go. It is a small number of people who want you to go,” President Zuma said. “We want us to live as sister and brother.”

The imbizo, at which the king will address the province’s traditional leaders and their subjects, will be held at the Moses Mabhida Stadium at 10am.

City Press understands that the king was finally persuaded to call the imbizo after a number of interactions with KwaZulu-Natal Premier Senzo Mchunu and ministers involved in the process.

The premier announced the imbizo on Friday after more than a week of efforts by him and national and provincial ministers to convince the monarch to publicly call for peace following his controversial comments in Phongola late last month, which are regarded as having triggered the violence.

Zwelithini reportedly said: “We are requesting those who come from outside to go back to their countries.”

Last week, as pressure increased on him to retract his words or apologise, the king dug in his heels and blamed the media instead.

On Thursday night, following a “discussion” with Mchunu, he was finally persuaded to act to calm the violence. The monarch had earlier met with Police Minister Nathi Nhleko, State Security Minister David Mahlobo and Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba.

Caught off guard

It also emerged this week that intelligence agencies were caught off guard by the early waves of xenophobic attacks that have swept through KwaZulu-Natal in the past few weeks.

Sources in SAPS Crime Intelligence told City Press this week that they had been monitoring potential attacks on predominantly Muslim shops and homes in Isipingo, but they didn’t expect the xenophobic violence to break out. Tensions were already high in the area following a strike at a local supermarket and unhappiness about a business premises being rented out to foreign nationals.

“We never knew a thing,” said a crime intelligence operative who asked to remain anonymous because he is not allowed to speak to the media.

“We were caught completely off guard by this. We had no idea that things were going to happen like this.”

A further two sources also confirmed that even though there had been information about areas “bubbling under”, there was no indication exactly where it would all begin.

“Without knowing who is behind these attacks and where they will happen next, it would be very difficult to know where to post soldiers or any other personnel to stop these attacks from even happening,” said the source.

Yesterday, public safety MEC Willies Mchunu told City Press that moves to stabilise communities and reintegrate displaced foreign nationals who wanted to remain in South Africa were going ahead, but that many had chosen to be repatriated to their countries of origin.

By mid-morning yesterday, more than 2?400 refugees from Bhambayi, Inanda, Verulam and Greenwood Park were being accommodated at a new centre in Rydalvale, Phoenix.

Families carrying whatever they could take from their homes in Bhambayi were among the latest arrivals. They had been leaving the area in groups since Thursday.

Richard Sigale (39), a clothing factory machinist from Blantyre, has no intention to come back to South Africa once he gets to Malawi, where his wife and two children are waiting for him.

“I’m not coming back,” said Sigale. “People here hate us. They want to kill us. I will rather sit and cry from hunger at home than come back here and die.”

Sigale had spent two weeks at the camp after fleeing the first wave of attacks in Chatsworth.

Grace Sithole and Nomsa Bonda, both of whom come from Harare, Zimbabwe, abandoned their homes in Bhambayi on Friday night. Both will stay in the camp in Phoenix until they can get transport to Zimbabwe.

“We went to the police station and they came and helped us take our things. The neighbours have been threatening us, telling us we are criminals, that we are selling drugs. They say all kinds of things. They say we took their jobs and they are going to kill us if we stay here,” said Sithole.

“All we want is to go home. We know we can’t stay here. We have to go,” she said.

At the Chatsworth refugee centre, where more than 2?000 people were being accommodated at the Unit 3 sports grounds, 200 Malawian nationals had already been documented by yesterday morning for repatriation to their home country.

They and others were being processed by officials from immigration and home affairs before being loaded in groups of 67 on to 12 buses bound for Blantyre and other centres.

Victims of xenophobia

Victims of xenophobia had their meagre belongings tagged with their name and village and loaded onto trailers hitched to long-distance coaches. Red Cross officials and local community workers were distributing blankets, food and water for the three-day trip home. The foreigners had earlier been seen by doctors and treated for injuries or medical conditions.

Each refugee knelt on the sports field in a line alongside whatever personal belongings they had been able to salvage – from bicycles to washing baskets – waiting for their name to be called.

Community workers said the camp was overflowing, but more people were still pouring in.

“We are full already. People are scared and were still coming here last night,” said Iqbal Khan, a community activist. “We’re still feeding them, but things are tough here.”

He said crime intelligence had received information that there might be attacks on Muslim property owners in Isipingo.

No way we could prepare

“Informants told us that they might target the Muslims because they rent properties to the foreigners. Nobody knew this was going to happen or that things were going to happen so soon. Once the king made his statement, things went off straight away. People are like sheep,” he said.

“There was no way we could prepare for something like that as there was nothing coming from our informants that pointed to this happening.”

A provincial divisional commissioner, who also asked to remain anonymous, painted a similar picture, saying they had been focused on a labour dispute at the supermarket in Isipingo and had not anticipated the wave of attacks that have left five people dead and thousands homeless.

“Our focus was on the labour dispute. There was no indication that there was a build-up of potential xenophobic activity,” the commissioner said.

On Thursday, State Security Minister David Mahlobo said that while some of the groups involved in the xenophobic attacks “appear to be a step ahead” of the intelligence services, this did not mean there had been an intelligence failure.

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