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South African Authorities Try To Quell Xenophobic Violence


In South Africa, the death toll is not nearly as high, but the circumstances are shocking. At least seven people were killed by mobs and thousands lost homes and businesses as violence exploded targeting the many immigrants there from neighboring countries. Police have cracked down on those involved. And for more, we're joined from Johannesburg by David Smith. He is the Africa correspondent for The Guardian newspaper and recently visited the province of KwaZulu-Natal where some of the worst attacks occurred. Welcome to the program.

DAVID SMITH: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Now, these attacks are by mostly poor, jobless, black South Africans, and they're lashing out in fury against people coming from other African nations, taking their jobs, setting up businesses that locals would like to have. What is it, resentment that's fueling this?

SMITH: Yes. I mean, it's a perception that they are taking their jobs. But the academic research actually suggests that, you know, in that particular province where I was, foreign nationals only make up 1 percent of the workforce. And in fact, the businesses set up by foreigners employed more South Africans than actual South African-owned businesses. But, you know, as we see around the world, there's a lot of othering when it comes to people from other countries. And it has very fertile soil in South Africa, which is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Indeed, it's estimated that half of young black South Africans are without a job.

MONTAGNE: Why would South Africa, though, then if it's so inequal, why would it beckon so many people from other countries?

SMITH: Well, of course, part of that inequality is this. There are some in South Africa who are fabulously wealthy. I think South Africa is to many Africans, you know, what America is to many people in the world. It's the beacon of Democratic hope, and it's the land of opportunity.

MONTAGNE: This kind of resentment has been there for years. Scores of outsiders were killed back in 2008 when there was an explosion of violence, tens of thousands displaced. What caused this flare-up?

SMITH: This particular flare-up is widely being blamed on the king of the Zulu nation, the Zulu ethnic group. He made some comments saying that foreigners should pack up their bags and go home. The president, Jacob Zuma's son, has also made some unhelpful comments, but, you know, these are sparks in a tinderbox and we do see these outbreaks every so often. So one suspects if it wasn't that trigger, then it would probably be something else.

MONTAGNE: How is it being handled this time? Because in the past, the government has not been very effective in calming this down.

SMITH: I think, overall, they're maybe doing slightly better this time than in the past. Hundreds of extra police officers have been deployed. And, you know, the South African government was swift to set up what are effectively refugee camps in their own country, which on one level is a very shocking sight in South Africa in the 21st century and another very sad sight - you know, foreign nationals actually boarding buses to go back to their home countries. And one wonders what the late Nelson Mandela would've made of that.

MONTAGNE: David Smith is a reporter for The Guardian newspaper speaking to us from Johannesburg. Thank you very much.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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