On May 18, the anti-immigrant violence that started in the township of Alexandra and spread like wildfire to other poor districts in Johannesburg, broke out in the city centre itself. The targets of the attacks by poor South Africans were Zimbabweans, like this man, who said: “Our houses have been vandalised by these Zulu people. They say we should go back to our countries even if you are somebody with a permit or a passport or whatever. You should go back to your home country because they don’t want other tribes in South Africa.”
For decades South Africa has been a magnet for economic migrants, with an immigration system that was seen as one of the most liberal in the world.
Five million people have come from other African countries, three million of them from Zimbabwe. South Africa has a population of around 50 million.
For Zimbabweans it is a haven. Millions have crossed the border illegally, fleeing famine, unemployment of around 80 per cent and inflation of 165,000 per cent.
Analysts say the huge influx of illegal immigrants will have an impact: “It is affecting South Africa in a very direct way with a number of unmanageable immigrants coming into South Africa.
“It is also affecting South Africa and the region in terms of image and image is very important in this day and age in terms of attracting investment to the region and building confidence.”
South Africa’s is the continent’s leading economy – it grew by an average of five per cent over the past four years. But this has failed to have much of an impact on unemployment, which remains at about 23 per cent. And even worse, 14 years after the end of apartheid, the economy is still controlled by the white minority.
Unless Thabo Mbeki’s government deals with the violence quickly and effectively, he will be severely weakened politically.
He has already lost the leadership of the ruling African National Congress and there have been calls for early elections from within the ANC.