A boy called XenoComment on this story
Johannesburg - His name is meant to capture one of the most horrendous episodes in post-liberation South Africa, when South Africans hounded foreigners out of their homes, maiming and killing them.
It was on this date, exactly five years ago, that Xeno Sakala was born at KwaThema police station near Springs. His parents, Clement Sakala and Diana Chiroodza, had, with dozens of other foreigners, taken refuge there after fleeing their shack, just behind the local hostel.
Ahead of his birthday, Xeno’s parents reflected on the suffering of fellow Zimbabweans and other foreigners at the hands of South Africans.
“The violence and hatred was frightening,” said Chiroodza. “Our lives were almost ruined because we lost everything. We were lucky to escape unharmed, but we are still hurting because a lot of our friends were killed.”
For eight days, they had watched marauding mobs attacking foreigners, purging them from their settlements.
It was on a Sunday - May 11, 2008 - that South Africa awoke to the news of chilling attacks on Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and Malawians in Alexandra.
People were hunted down and bludgeoned with pangas, golf clubs and machetes.
Their shacks and spaza shops were razed as resentment grew.
Mothers and daughters were raped.
The hatred and violence was often expressed in the perpetrators’ chanting of President Jacob Zuma’s favourite song, Awuleth’ Umshini wami.
Within days, the wave of attacks had swept through townships in Gauteng and spread to other parts of the country as foreigners fled.
South African resentment had taken on alarming proportions.
The seemingly arbitrary nature of some of the violence extended to South Africans who could not speak indigenous languages.
To the mobs, if you spoke only Shangaan, it meant you were Mozambican.
When the mayhem ended, at least 62 people had been reported dead, hundreds were nursing wounds and thousands were displaced in refugee camps.
The scale and viciousness of the attacks had caught the government off guard and sent shock waves across the continent and the world.
Although Sakala and Chiroodza named their child Xeno, the suffering they endured is an experience they don’t like to talk about.
“We’ve moved on,” said Sakala. “Once you go through a particular process, you become stronger and are able to see things from a different perspective. We are still trying to get back on our feet, but we have forgiven and moved on.
“Anti-foreigner sentiment is isolated today. You still hear it here and there, but there is certainly a distinctive change that you feel,” he said.
The couple now live in Tsakane.
But apprehension lies beneath this apparent acceptance. The fear of xenophobia lingers.
“If you asked me whether I could live in the hostels, I’d say no,” said Sakala. “When people talk about the hostels, the fear comes back.”
It’s this anxiety that is quintessential to other foreigners in South Africa.
“What was shocking was that there were people we knew and were close to who turned against us. But there were many others who were kind, friendly and supportive,” said Chiroodza.
Sakala interjected: “That was part of the tragedy of xenophobia. Many people are friendly, but there are others who can’t be changed.”
The shamefulness of the attacks exposed a devastating truth about our country - the rainbow nation was in tatters.
Catchphrases such as “unity in diversity” gave way to loathing as a deep-seated resentment towards immigrants became real.
Another person who is no longer at ease about staying is Armonia Timbe, a Mozambican who lives in Ramaphosa informal settlement near Germiston. She runs a spaza shop about 20m from the spot fellow citizen Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave - the man who became a symbol of the violence - was set alight.
Fear of xenophobic attacks banished Timbe and her seven children to a life of poverty in their home town of Xai Xai for more than a year as they waited to hear whether it was safe to return. One of her daughters had to quit school.
“My children came back (to South Africa) first. They later phoned me to say it was safe for me to return. We were suffering in Mozambique because there are no jobs there and business is not good,” said Timbe.
Almost four years after her return, fear still lurks.
“People still refer us as Shangaans. I have left everything to God.”
Her daughter-in-law Eminencia Buque was more forthright.
“They see us as Shangaans, as if we are not normal human beings. If you give someone the wrong change by mistake, he or she will swear at you, calling you a ‘useless Shangaan’.
“Whenever someone has fake money, they come here. Maybe they think we’re ignorant and don’t know money. It makes us think we’re not accepted in the community.”
More disconcerting was the government’s response to the xenophobic violence. Some politicians resorted to hollow rhetoric; others blamed it on a “third force”.
Nathan Geffen, policy co-ordinator at the Treatment Action Campaign, attributed the outbreak of xenophobic violence to a combination of factors: “An already violent society, massive inequality, the increased threat of poverty exacerbated by consistent service delivery failure and the acceptance - even encouragement - of xenophobia plus competition for basic materials like food and shelter and other commodities.
“When competition for resources is extreme, as in South Africa, jealousy builds up and xenophobic and racist ideas become common, even though the enterprise of many immigrants helps create jobs and services. Unfettered competition breeds hate in these conditions.”
Statistics suggest that there are many immigrants in South Africa with tertiary qualifications and that some have contributed to job creation. But this appears to have counted for little to those South Africans who felt that immigrants had invaded our country and contributed to the joblessness, poverty and squalor.
“The problem is that they (immigrants) steal and rob others,” said a woman at Ramaphosa, who identified herself as Mphumi.
“They undermine us and think they are clever. They are arrogant and don’t want to listen to South Africans. Many firms prefer to employ the foreigners rather than South Africans because they accept less money.”
For immigrants like Buque, the fear of being attacked always looms large.
“Sometimes when there is a local meeting, they say they are going to talk about us and that we must go back home. Maybe they don’t mean it, but it scares us when people say such things. It hurts because there are many South Africans in Mozambique, but we are hated here.”
There are level-headed residents in Ramaphosa who are blunt in their views about what drives people to attack immigrants.
Among them are Lucky Molobela and Johannes Mpya, friends who earn a living welding steel security gates, doors and corrugated iron.
“The problem with us South Africans is there are those among us who don’t want to work harder and are often jealous. The government is the cause because it spoils people by giving them too many promises of a better life.”
Mpya added: “And they make those promises without explaining how that better life will come about. After the incident, we suffered a lot. We couldn’t get simple things like tomatoes because the foreigners ran away.”
A Ramaphosa resident, who was among the first to witness Nhamuave being murdered, said: “I don’t know what we were fighting for. For what was he killed?
“The very same things we were fighting against are still happening. People from Mozambique and Zimbabwe are still coming to live here. People are still without jobs. They are still staying in shacks without electricity.
“Maybe there were expectations that the government would wake up and do something. But nothing was achieved.”
Although the demons of xenophobia have not been tamed, Xeno’s parents are drawing inspiration from their child.
“The name has made us stronger… Sometimes when we fight and think about this child, it makes us reconcile.
“The bond becomes stronger because we remember the difficult times,” said Sakala.