Xenophobic threats spook students

File photo: AFP

File photo: AFP

Published Apr 9, 2015


  Pretoria - Fear of xenophobic attacks has gripped a community of foreign students learning English in Pretoria, forcing many to skip class on Wednesday and hide in their rooms.

The wave of threats, which peaked on Wednesday morning, affected about 200 undergraduate and post-graduate students at the Getting to Know English centre in Sunnyside. They are improving their English before entering university to pursue their studies in the country.

Some of them attended class on Wednesday, taking comfort in the safety of numbers, stepping up protective measures to ensure they went undetected outside the institution.

“We are limiting our engagement with locals to avoid failing to speak local languages, we keep our hair covered in hats to hide the different texture,” a Gabonese student said.

The students said they had gone as far as listening to local music on their phones. “I deleted every French song on my phone and listened to local beats on my way here this morning,” another student said.

The students who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect themselves, on Wednesday talked about the warning messages received via community groups on social media.

“They told us of the threat to our lives and told us to remain vigilant always,” the Gabonese student said.

The messages started circulating on Saturday and told of a planned massacre of foreigners in Durban and Cape Town, while one generated on Wednesday morning claimed six had already been murdered in Joburg.

“… avoid public transport, especially trains and taxis. Stay away from isolated areas, don’t walk around townships. Please share this warning with friends and foreign families,” one WhatsApp message read.

All messages told recipients that on Wednesday was the day the xenophobic attacks would be carried out en masse, prompting students and teachers of the school to be on high alert.

“They are in danger, our students face the real threat of being harmed,” school principal Michele Mardones said. The school caters for a large community of foreigners, and the threats were a cause for concern, especially after parents were forced to pull their children out and return them back home during the 2010 attacks, she said.

The students are a mix from various countries who want to study at South African universities. Among them are Congolese, Angolan, Gabonese, and students from Benin, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Mozambique.

While the origins of the messages could not be established they could not be ignored, Congolese national James Ikoko said. “Foreigners have been subjected to violent attacks for no reason at all in this country. How can they ignore a call from one of the highest offices in the land?” he asked.

The violent threats have been blamed on the apparent utterances by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini in Pongola, Kwazulu-Natal, at the end of last month, where he is reported to have said foreigners must go home and stop competing for resources with locals. These words sparked fear among foreigners and condemnation by human rights activists, and resulted in a march by foreigners against the attacks in Durban on Wednesday.

The march turned violent as protesters clashed with police, who used water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.

President Jacob Zuma’s son, Edward, supported the king’s message, saying the country was a ticking time bomb, which was “the threat of foreigners taking over the country”.

The Royal Household Trust had come to the defence of the monarch, saying the real message had been lost in translation. Yesterday, the media reported that the king had agreed to meet church leaders to clarify his stance in relation to foreigners and the alleged xenophobic remarks.

The Pretoria students on Wednesday said they would not rush to go back home, despite some families asking them to leave before the situation became volatile. “We will stick around and keep our heads low and monitor the situation,” one said.

Efforts to find out if police were aware of the threats and action they were taking in preparation for any possible violence were unsuccessful.

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Pretoria News

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