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Frustrations Fuel Violence Against Immigrants In South Africa


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Scott Simon is away. Mobs with machetes attacked immigrants in Durban, South Africa on Thursday, forcing thousands to seek shelter. The government is now caring for some 1,500 migrants in a camp in the nearby suburb of Chatsworth. The BBC's Milton Nkosi has just returned from the area. He joins us now from Johannesburg.


MILTON NKOSI: Hello. It's good to be here, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Can you tell me what started this, what brought on these attacks?

NKOSI: It's not entirely clear what started the xenophobic attacks here in South Africa, but the background to it is that there are many immigrants from the rest of the African continent coming to South Africa to seek job opportunities. Remember, South Africa is the most industrialized country on the African continent and it is an economic powerhouse. And people from other parts of the continent - and indeed other parts of the world, might I say - do tend to come in and immigrate, come here for job opportunities. And the locals feel that they have been squeezed out by these people because they come in and they undercut on salaries. So, they are prepared to take much lower wages. So the violence is a part of that frustration. It's not a justification, but you could argue that's probably where it came from.

WERTHEIMER: Now, what about the - what about the actual violence? I mean, how bad was it? What did you see in Durban?

NKOSI: Well, when I was in Durban, I spoke to an Ethiopian shopkeeper who had lost everything. His shop was broken into and it was ransacked. There was pretty much nothing left on the shelves. And it looked that someone tried to even torch the shop. But the shop belongs to a South African landlord. He was renting the shop out to the Ethiopian man. And there are many stories like that across KwaZulu Natal, which is where you'll find Durban, on the east coast of South Africa.

WERTHEIMER: But there was considerable violence, and not just to property, but also to people?

NKOSI: Very much so. Five people died in the last two weeks, including two South Africans, might I say, who were killed during the violence. The South African mobs and looters had gone to shop after shop, which were owned by migrants - African migrants. And they looted them and they were taunting them, telling them that they're taking their jobs and their economic opportunities, they must go back to where they come from.

WERTHEIMER: Is there something that the government can do to stop this happening? Like, for example, institute something that happens in a lot of industrial countries - a minimum wage, for example?

NKOSI: Well, that's what the unions have been fighting for and that's what part of the ruling party, the African National Congress, has been arguing, that there's got to be a minimum wage. But what the government is doing in relation to the violence, President Jacob Zuma addressed Parliament on Thursday, and he condemned the violence. He called it shameful and shocking and he said there's no justification for it. The police have set up joint operation centers which are running 24 hours a day to try and put an end to this. President Zuma has put up a cluster of ministers within his cabinet to put an end to the violence. Whether they can succeed to stop it on their own, it's another question.

WERTHEIMER: The BBC's Milton Nkosi joined us from Johannesburg.

Thank you very much for doing this.

NKOSI: You're most welcome, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.