Zvavanhu, Shepherd (Eye on Civil Society, The Mercury) 3 August 2010
On a recent Sunday morning, I saw xenophobia as close as I ever want to:
the anger of a poor community in Durban’s main hotspot, Bottlebrush.
The shack settlement of an estimated four thousand residents is located
in Chatsworth, and suffers divided political loyalties between two camps
within the African National Congress.
It is an unusually violent settlement, known for leadership crisis and
warlordism. But in many ways it is no different than the 100 similar
desperate shack settlements in which so many live.
At the July 25 meeting, 300 people from Bottlebrush gathered for several
hours. Three of us came from the UKZN Centre for Civil Society (CCS),
and I addressed the crowd in isi Zulu, alongside local leaders.
Our appeal was to halt the pressure on immigrants that generated attacks
and mass flight in May 2008, and again three weeks ago, just as the
World Cup ended.
We were first questioned on who we are, where we came from (one of us is
Zimbabwean and another Congolese), which political party our Centre is
affiliated to (none), and if we were not ‘sell outs’ (we don’t think so).
Our Centre provides a platform for people to address issues of concern
to all communities, and xenophobia is the main cancer eating away at the
body politic from within South African civil society. We recently issued
a 100 page report by ten researchers plus a national team coordinated by
Atlantic Philanthropies and the Johannesburg NGO Strategy&Tactics.
Our visit to Bottlebrush followed extensive research there by CCS
post graduate student Trevor Ngwane. According to Ngwane, even in the
wake of a government housing project, “It is hard to distinguish the new
houses from the old brick houses some people built for themselves,
everything appears drab and sub standard.”
Ngwane observes, “Electricity has been installed at Bottlebrush and one
can see wires confusedly crisscrossing the street poles intent on
finding their way into each yard. Most shacks are made of planks or
wooden boards pinned together with rusty nails. Each yard can squeeze in
as many as 13 shacks.”
The settlement was launched more than twenty years ago, when ANC
refugees fled political violence in nearby KwaNdengezi township, and the
ANC Branch Executive Committee still rules. But according to Ngwane,
“Almost every respondent who commented on the issue held this committee
in disgust because of their poor and allegedly corrupt leadership. “
We accepted an invitation to visit Bottlebrush from a local leader,
Fundisi Mhlongo. Our aim was to hear concerns from locals as well as
Bottlebrush leaders discussed fraud and corruption by local elites, the
need for proper housing, electricity, water and sanitation and their
unhappiness over rising municipal bills. Residents applauded Mhlongo’s
knowledge, and the meeting proposed that he run for a position as local
councillor in next year’s municipal elections.
But then came the hard part, as locals explained why they think their
problems stem from the presence of immigrants.
They blame us for taking jobs, as companies in the area allegedly
retrench locals and replace them with much lower paid foreigners, who,
they say, accept wages of as little as R20 per day, instead of joining a
fight to earn a living wage. A company can employ four Zimbabweans for
the salary of one local, one man claimed to applause.
As for housing, locals can’t access accommodation, while immigrants pay
far higher rents, because many more squeeze into shacks. Foreigners may
stay in groups of five where they contribute R500 a month for rooms that
earlier cost locals only R200 rent. Some landlords prefer to take
foreigners as tenants, instead of locals, because we are vulnerable.
As Ngwane put it, “the housing crisis is stoking xenophobia in
Bottlebrush. This is because of unscrupulous landlords who take
advantage of both the shortage of housing and the vulnerable status of
We explained our plight, such as looting of the Democratic Republic of
the Congo, with increasing involvement by shady South African firms. As
for my country’s background, I trace it partly to the move by Mzilikazi
away from Shaka. Matabeleland is full of Khumalos, Ndlovus and Dlaminis
so by attacking Zimbabweans, xenophobes are spilling their own blood.
During the apartheid era, we gave refuge to people like Jacob Zuma and
many others from the liberation movements. This was repaid not through
kindness, but by government supporting President Robert Mugabe against a
mass democratic opposition, even helping to cover up electoral fraud and
I begged the Bottlebrush community not to legitimise the boundaries
imposed by colonialists, and to treat Africans as one nation. Immigrants
do not choose to leave beloved families and homes voluntarily. Not only
Zimbabweans, but Congolese, Burundians, Somalis, Ethiopians, Rwandans
etc flee from despotic governments to save their lives.
I described what I felt when crossing the Limpopo River some years ago.
The majority of Zimbabweans here ran from Mugabe and his killer
militias, such as the Green Bombers. Some of us were approached at
night, our families beaten, tortured and killed in front of them, our
houses and documents burnt, and in some cases our children and wives
raped in front of us.
At the same time, our companies closed due to the economic meltdown and
people ended up eating wild fruits. This is why there are so many
Zimbabweans in South Africa.
The SA government is the region’s mediator on Zimbabwe and should stop
shielding Mugabe. Free and fair elections there will change the kind of
government, but by continuing to support Mugabe, more and more
Zimbabweans will come to South Africa.
And if South Africans suffer both a shortage of housing and an
unemployment crisis, then why not solve these simultaneously? Why not
demand a mass construction programme just as ambitious and urgent as
building new soccer stadiums?
There are solutions if we put our minds together. In the meantime,
appealed Mhlongo to Bottlebrush, “we must not beat the foreigners”.