Bright Magomora took no chances when a crowd gathered outside his small shop, hammering on the walls with sticks and shouting that he should go home to Zimbabwe.
“I ran away,” says Mr Magomora, who had spent five years in the South African shanty town of Kya Sands, north of Johannesburg. “They wanted to beat me up or kill me, saying that we foreigners should go back to our place. Then they took everything.”
Troops were deployed in South Africa’s townships last month as the government sought to avoid a repeat of the anti-foreigner bloodshed in May 2008 that left 62 people dead and displaced about 100,000. The renewed tension followed reports that migrant workers from African nations were being threatened with violence if they stayed in South Africa after the football World Cup.
Several immigrants were murdered in the weeks following the tournament and many foreign-owned businesses looted or destroyed, particularly in townships around Cape Town, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth. Many foreigners are believed to have left the country in fear of their lives.
But experts have praised the government’s speedy response. Soldiers and police largely restored calm to the affected areas.
The fear of a post-World Cup embarrassment has focused attention on a problem that never went away, says Loren Landau, director of the Forced Migration Studies Programme at Witwatersrand University. “May 2008 represented a peak of violence that we haven’t seen since. But there are attacks every week,” he adds.
In a country where unemployment officially stands at 25 per cent, many South Africans blame foreign workers for taking valuable jobs and driving down wages.
Mr Landau says that unscrupulous politicians often exploit these tensions and encourage violence. In particular, they play on the caricature of migrants as criminals. “Getting tough on foreigners can show you’re active in combating crime. And you can then distribute their property to your associates,” he says.
Businessmen who feel threatened by foreign competitors also organise violence, according to Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh of Lawyers for Human Rights. “Somali, Ethiopian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi shopkeepers in townships often band together, which gives them increased purchasing power. South African businesses typically haven’t done the same.”
However, Ms Ramjathan-Keogh rejects suggestions that a sense of superiority over other Africans lies behind the attacks. “Many poor South Africans are unhappy with service delivery and a number of other issues. It’s convenient to direct that dissatisfaction at foreign nationals because they’re vulnerable.”
Campaigners believe the recent security operation has weakened the “climate of impunity” that prevailed in 2008, when people attacked foreigners with little fear of consequences. Twelve arrests have been made in Kya Sands alone.
But the government has been criticised for refusing to accept anti-foreigner violence is a specific problem. Nathi Mthethwa, the police minister, has described these attacks as “purely criminal activity”. He denied that fear explained the departure of migrants since the World Cup, claiming they were seasonal workers who had simply reached the end of their employment.
But Jacques Kikonga Kamanda, secretary of the Co-ordinating Body of Refugee Communities, insisted the outflow was “because of the threats–many of our community members have told us they were warned to leave, or they would be dealt with”.
The police are often unpopular in the townships, partly because of memories of apartheid repression. But sometimes they are complicit in harassing foreigners, says Abdul Hakim Mohamad, chairman of the Somali Community Board. He says 66 Somalis were unlawfully arrested in May in the township of Etwatwa, when at least one shop was looted by police.
In Kya Sands, however, Zimbabweans credit the police with restoring calm. “It’s fine now, because they are here,” says Nomsa Ndlovu. But the threats have not stopped.
Ms Ndlovu predicted: “When they [the police] leave, the violence will continue.”