South Africa Xenophobic Attacks

Feb 25, 2017
Originally published on February 25, 2017 6:43 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The United States is not the only nation dealing with tension over immigration and refugees. On Friday, a large anti-immigrant protest resulted in the arrest of 136 people in South Africa's capital, Pretoria, that according to The Associated Press. Police fired stun grenades and rubber bullets at protesters. It was the latest in a series of attacks against Somalis, Nigerians and other foreigners in Pretoria and in Johannesburg. NPR's Peter Granitz spoke with protesters marching in Pretoria, and he's joining us now to explain why this is happening.

Peter, good to talk with you again.

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: Same to you.

MARTIN: So are foreigners indeed the target? And if so, why?

GRANITZ: They are. And advocates will say they're the target because they're the scapegoat because people here, South Africans, are - they're actually upset with the government. They're upset with roads that aren't paved. They're losing their power sporadically, and they're upset with, you know, a near-record unemployment rate. We're talking about a place with a 26 percent unemployment rate for the country. So people are angry, and they're excitable. And they want to have something to point their finger at. I spoke with somebody named Clifton Mnene (ph). Now, he's upset with the amount of heroin in Pretoria, and that is a very serious problem here. And he says the police don't do anything about it. And he's protesting because he thinks the heroin gets sold by outsiders, like people from Nigeria.

CLIFTON MNENE: It's foreigners. Foreigners are selling drugs here. Those fruits and vegetables there is so rotten. What they're doing there is they're selling drugs.

GRANITZ: There are people who represent the Nigerian community and who represent other African communities in the country who say yes, there are Nigerians who sell drugs. But not all drug dealers are Nigerian. Crime is crime. It's not fair to scapegoat certain people. And I should say that when Clifton and I were talking, we were doing this as protesters stormed into a mechanic's garage and pulled people out. Now, those protesters say that garage - it's nothing more than a front for a drug den.

MARTIN: Is South Africa a preferred destination for refugees?

GRANITZ: South Africa is a major destination for asylum-seekers and for economic migrants. Millions have chosen to come southward instead of going to Europe. South Africa has a very liberal asylum policy. So if you get here and you apply to become a refugee, you have the right to work. You have the right to study. And perhaps most importantly, unlike other places that take in refugees, people here can live in the city. They just don't live in camps. They're not secluded from the rest of the population. That sets South Africa apart.

MARTIN: And what are South Africa's leaders saying about all of this?

GRANITZ: Obviously, they're calling for peace. But it needs to be said that they are doing that very meekly. On Friday, President Jacob Zuma recognized that the violence was happening, that the march was happening. But he called it a march against crime. And somebody asked him on Friday afternoon if South Africa had a problem with xenophobia. And this is how he responded.

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PRESIDENT JACOB ZUMA: That is a debatable point, whether South Africans are xenophobic. I don't you'd have the numbers that you have of foreigners if South Africa was xenophobic.

GRANITZ: Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba has also been accused for inciting this violence. He came into power in August and since then has made many, many controversial statements likening foreigners to criminals. In fact, Johannesburg had its own xenophobia a couple of weeks ago in the southern neighborhood of Rosettenville, where Nigerians were targeted for drug dealing and prostitution. Mayor Mashaba joined the police on raids going into houses looking for criminals. And something to note - he's a member of the opposition party, of the Democratic Alliance. President Jacob Zuma is a member of the African National Congress, so it's clear that xenophobia can cut across party lines in South Africa.

MARTIN: That's reporter Peter Granitz who joined us from South Africa's capital, Pretoria.

Peter, thanks so much for joining us.

GRANITZ: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.