They came to South Africa in search of a better life and, for a while, found the promised land. Fungai Chopo got work as a builder, his wife, Memory, was hired as a maid, and they shared a decent house with their two children. The hunger, joblessness and poverty of their home in Zimbabwe was banished.
This week all that changed for the Chopos and for many like them. One night just before midnight about 15 men burst into the family home, clubbed Fungai until he bled, threatened to kill the family and stole all they had, including the HIV medication that keeps Memory alive.
Now the Chopos are among roughly 3,500 immigrants sleeping rough in crowded tents in heavily guarded transit camps not in a Congolese or South Sudanese warzone but in 21st-century South Africa.
Foreigners have fled for safety from a recent eruption of xenophobic violence in which at least five people have died, shops have been looted and torched, and South Africa’s reputation as a haven of tolerance for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses of a turbulent continent has been shaken. “The fabric of the nation is splitting at the seams; its precious nucleus – our moral core – is being ruptured,” the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation said this week.
Worst hit is Durban, South Africa’s third-biggest city, to where the Chopos moved three years ago. “They beat my husband with sticks, they took everything, money, food, clothes for the baby,” said Memory, 31, wearing her last remaining T-shirt and protecting her children Mercy, four, and one-year-old John. “They said ‘if you don’t give us these things, we will kill you. We want your shoes, remove your T-shirt.’ They took everything, even passports and IDs. The police came but they didn’t do anything because they are afraid of those boys.”
The Chopo family fled to a transit camp erected just over a week ago off Florence Nightingale Road in the suburb of Chatsworth. By Thursday it was offering sanctuary to about 1,200 immigrants, with eight tents in an area roughly the size of a football pitch, surrounded by armed guards and steel crowd-control fencing draped with drying blankets and clothes. There was a hubbub of voices as people formed orderly queues to register or take a lunch of bread and beans provided free by volunteers. Litter was strewn on the grass that turned muddy as rain fell.
The government-run camp provides medicine and will allow Memory to resume antiretroviral drug treatment for HIV. But she and her children are sleeping on the cold floor of a crowded tent. “The conditions here are basic. We are in mixed tents with men, women and children; some are taking clothes off. The toilets are few and very dirty and people are getting sick,” she said. “I feel scared. I can’t sleep at night because the dreams are very bad, always seeing these visions from that night. They don’t have ears, they don’t have eyes.”
Their aspirations in tatters, the Chopos plan to take a bus back to Zimbabwe. “I came to South Africa for a better life and I worked for everything,” Memory said. “But we are going home empty-handed, without funds, without passports, without the kids’ birth certificates. Now we have to wait for the transport provided by the government to take us home.”
Alongside her stood a compatriot, Joanna Moyo, 32, with a sick, sleeping baby tied to her back. She said: “I was robbed and now I don’t have anything, only my kids. I’m still worried those guys will come here and attack us. We want to go home. Even though there is nothing there, our lives are more important. I don’t think South Africa will welcome us again – they hate us now.”
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Immigrants shelter at the Chatsworth football grounds south of Durban. Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images
South Africa is to many Africans what America represents to many around the world: an escape, a fresh start, a land of opportunity. When gold was discovered in Johannesburg in 1886, it was soon being mined by men from a dozen African nations. Today the country is a magnet for Congolese, Ethiopians, Malawians, Mozambicans, Nigerians, Somalis, Zimbabweans and others fleeing conflict or seeking to improve their lot. Estimates of immigrant numbers vary from 2 million to 5 million, out of a population of 51 million.
But the recent wave of xenophobia has tarnished this image and fuelled resentment among those who accuse South Africa of an arrogant exceptionalism that looks down on the rest of the continent.
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Paul Manhica, 34, a car mechanic from Mozambique, said: “I chose South Africa because the living conditions are better than any other country. I believed in the rainbow nation and the peace created since the apartheid system failed. It’s a shock for me that it’s not the democratic country that I thought. I’m disappointed that an African brother could do this. It’s a lack of love in their hearts.”
On Thursday Manhica was among about 100 Mozambicans who, in a stark image that few thought they would see in democratic South Africa, boarded a coach for home because their safety could no longer be guaranteed. He had lived here for 13 years was leaving behind a South African wife and child. “I came here for work to pursue a better life for myself and my family,” he explained. “I got a small business, but it has all stopped since the attacks began.
“A group of people shouted at me: ‘There’s one of them. Catch him and torture him.’ Some of them were people I’ve known many years. But I believe the Lord looked after me: I ran to the mall and phoned the police. Later the attackers went from home to home and there was great destruction. I couldn’t sleep. At 1am I heard neighbours being tortured, screaming and running for their lives.”
The Chatsworth camp has many such tales of disillusionment. Aaron Lavu, 39, a Zimbabwean who migrated 15 years ago and opened a small business, said: “South Africa is close to us and we were looking for greener pastures than the regime of Robert Mugabe. At first South Africans were friendly and we thought we would integrate. Then last week eight guys came and hit me with a hammer. They said: ‘You must pack your things and go home. We don’t need you here.’ It makes you feel lost, you can’t do anything any more, you’re not part of the society. We feel hurt because we thought we were going to our brothers.”
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A child from Mozambique in a makeshift bed at a camp in Chatsworth, south of Durban. Photograph: Rogan Ward/Reuters
Searching for an explanation, analysts point to South Africa’s status as one the most unequal societies in the world, the violent legacy of racial apartheid and an unemployment rate recorded officially as one in four, and reckoned to be more accurately one in three. There have been frequent explosions of xenophobic violence over the past decade, notably in 2008 when 62 people, including 21 South Africans, were killed and more than 150,000 displaced.
Ingrid Palmary, associate professor at the Wits University African Centre for Migration and Society, cited a lack of faith in state institutions, easy access to handguns and a perception that foreigners are to blame for hardship. “It takes a small trigger to spark a deep level hostility,” she said.
In Durban’s impoverished Bottle Brush informal settlement, brick homes sit alongside shacks fashioned from metal sheets, wood planks and chipboard behind fences topped by razor wire. Foreign nationals were chased out last week and few residents were willing to talk, but Nana Mkhonde, 29, was frank: “Our citizens took action because they wouldn’t leave and they were being told they must leave. They came with nothing, they can go with nothing as well. I feel bad because they left crying, but we have no choice.
“They should go because we have no jobs. I’m a citizen and want to work for 150 rand a day but foreigners will do it for 70 rand a day. In the kitchens and the factories they are taking over our jobs. They bring cheap goods and we don’t know where from. They leave their countries with a lot of skills and we have nothing. Our education is not good enough.”
The governing African National Congress has condemned the violence but Mkhonde, an unemployed single mother, responded: “The government says it’s wrong because when they give jobs they help themselves. If you don’t have friends in the ANC, you get nothing. What about us? Our government is doing nothing for us. The reason we’re fighting foreigners is because of our government.”
The Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, stoked the fires by calling for foreigners to pack their bags and leave, while the government is still wrestling with how to define the problem. The police minister, Nathi Nhleko, described the attacks as examples of “Afrophobia”, not xenophobia. “What you don’t see is you don’t see Australians being chased on the streets, Britons being chased on the streets and similar demands being placed on them that they should be leave the country and so on,” he said.
“What you effectively see is largely Africans against one another in a sense now. That’s why I’m saying it represents a certain type of political problem that has got to be dealt with by ourselves as South Africans. In a sense, what we are witnessing are actually Afrophobic kind of activities and attacks, resembling all elements of self-hate among Africans.”
But such comments have been met with scorn. Bishop Paul Verryn, who for years gave shelter to thousands of migrants at Johannesburg’s Central Methodist church, said: “It’s semantics in the face of disaster. It’s eating cake while the world goes hungry. There’s been a thunderous absence of good leadership.
“The profound shame that xenophobia brings on this nation is the same kind of shame that apartheid brought on the people of this land. What is so shaming is it alienates us from our neighbours and calls into question the integrity of our entire constitution. It exposes the systemic violation of injustice: today it is foreign nationals and tomorrow it will be Indians and after that it will be whites. There is anger and hatred growing among us.”
Yet amid the gloom hovering over Chatsworth camp there was a shaft of light. Volunteers from the local community turned up with carloads of bedding, blankets, clothes, food, nappies, toilet rolls, toothbrushes, toothpaste and other essentials. Iqbal Ismail, 49, a businessman organising breakfast, lunch and supper, said: “I’ve been here since the first day. After seeing the conditions of the place, sleeping without shelter, I didn’t have the heart to go back to work.”
Sue Clark, 50, from a property company that gathered donations via a Facebook post, mused: “At the beginning of the week I was saying I’m no longer proud to be South African, but now I’m saying I’m truly proud to be South African. This is hope. Just so many people want to make a difference.”