A STREET vendor from Mozambique, Emmanuel Sithole, lay begging for his life in a gutter as four men beat him and stabbed him in the heart with a long knife. Images of his murder have shaken South Africa, already reeling from a wave of attacks on foreigners, mostly poor migrants from the rest of Africa. Soldiers were deployed on April 21st to Alexandra, a Johannesburg township, and other flashpoints to quell the violence, though only after seven people had been killed. Thousands of fearful foreigners, many from Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, have sought refuge in makeshift camps. Others have returned home.
The latest violence flared up in the Durban area earlier this month after King Goodwill Zwelithini, the traditional leader of the Zulus, reportedly compared foreigners to lice and said that they should pack up and leave.
His comments poured fuel on an already-smouldering fire. Jean Pierre Misago, a researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society in Johannesburg, estimates that at least 350 foreigners have been killed in xenophobic violence since 2008. But Mr Misago says he has heard of only one conviction for murder. Attacks on foreigners and foreign-run businesses have been committed with virtual impunity; few cases ever make it to court. “Migrant lives are low-value lives,” says Marc Gbaffou, chairman of the African Diaspora Forum in Johannesburg.
When, after an outcry, King Zwelithini held an anti-xenophobia imbizo, or assembly, in a Durban stadium, some of the audience booed African ambassadors and religious leaders, chanted that foreigners should leave, and waved spears, axes and clubs. Meanwhile President Jacob Zuma, who has made only an emotionless plea to halt the violence, blamed journalists for publicising the death of Mr Sithole. “This makes us look bad,” he said. His eldest son, Edward (born in Swaziland), agreed foreigners should leave, saying that “we are sitting on a ticking time-bomb of them taking over the country.”This is the problem with immigrants, of course. They are perceived as somehow threatening the current way of life. Those sentiments seem to me to be behind xenophobia everywhere. In today's world, though, the presence of immigrants is more likely to indicate that the current way of life is already changing, and the immigrants are more the consequence, and less the cause, of those changes.