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Scapegoating of foreign nationals culminates in Diepsloot murder

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Johannesburg mother of two, Romy Saltz Petersen, from refugee and asylum non-profit organisation Afrika Awake, was at home with her children when her fears of an outbreak of xenophobic attacks in Diepsloot were realised.

She had felt a deep sense of foreboding for days as stories of protests, social disorder, and mayhem in the densely populated township north of the city filtered through to her on the news and from her people on the ground.

The Diepsloot community had been protesting against crime and poor policing of immigration laws in the wake of a number of murders. Residents claimed their complaints fall on deaf ears and that undocumented foreign nationals had driven up crime.

“I knew something really bad was going to happen,” Petersen said this week. She was right.

Father of four, Elvis Nyathi, 43, was savagely killed allegedly by an unidentified mob in Diepsloot extension 1 on Wednesday, 6 April, after failing to produce his identity document. His crime? He was a foreign national, a Zimbabwean with a job in a seemingly lawless, poverty-stricken area beset with unemployment, crime, and anti-foreigner sentiment.

According to reports, recent Diepsloot killings fuelled rising anger against African migrants, especially Zimbabweans.

Nyathi was beaten to death and set alight 20m from his home. His terrified wife, who was also beaten, and their children have fled the area.

“I was horrified when I saw footage of his burnt remains,” said Petersen, who upon hearing of Nyathi’s death, immediately contacted her colleague, Bianca Gewer, who then set about contacting one of their social activists on the ground to investigate.

“I have no words to describe the pain, sadness, and anger I feel that 14 years since the first xenophobic attacks in 2008 rocked the country, innocent people are still being killed, beaten, and burnt alive by hateful mobs,” said Petersen.

“He was dragged out of his house, beaten, tied up, and burnt alive, and no one even tried to pour water over him. What a way to go,” she lamented.

“The worst part is that there are never any arrests following these crimes, in spite of there being multiple eyewitnesses. There’s no justice for the victims, many of whom remain nameless. There’s no dignity,” she said.

Afrika Awake is a registered non-profit organisation focused on assisting refugees and asylum seekers living in South Africa. Many battle to have their paperwork renewed at the home affairs department, especially during COVID-19, when offices were closed.

“When they can’t have their documents renewed, many fear for their lives and find it impossible to work and earn a living,” said Petersen.

The grassroots organisation, which usually acts when a need arises, also helps displaced victims of xenophobia and implements social-cohesion initiatives. It relies heavily on donations from the public especially at times of upheaval related to xenophobic attacks.

“There’s no support for the families left behind to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. We sent a small donation to help Elvis’s family to move out of the area to feel safe until they decide what their next move will be. They are beyond traumatised.”

Independent social activist Nobuhle Virgie, who is affiliated to Afrika Awake and other groups such as the Africans in Diaspora Forum, rushed to the victim’s family the morning after the incident. “I witnessed scenes of shock and tears,” she told the SA Jewish Report.

Petersen said political figures condemn attacks on foreigners but at the same time, their anti-immigrant rhetoric fuels the country’s bubbling xenophobia.

Movements, such as Dudula are illegally forcing people in townships suspected to be undocumented foreign nationals to show their papers, stoking xenophobia, say community activists.

Some calm has been restored in Diepsloot after a stakeholders meeting attended by Police Minister Bheki Cele, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, Gauteng Premier David Makhura, and newly appointed Police Commissioner Fannie Masemola last Friday, 8 April.

Residents demanded more police vehicles and increased police visibility. They demanded that undocumented foreigners leave the area, and the killers be arrested and put in prison.

Cele told residents that the police station had received 16 vehicles, and more than 100 law enforcement officers. He also said more than 50 illegal immigrants had been arrested and that police wouldn’t leave the area until an assessment in three months’ time, showed that the situation had improved.

However, many foreign nationals in the area continue to live in fear as vigilante groups have been harassing people for a long time.

President Cyril Ramaphosa appealed for calm and denounced foreign national ID checks, saying it was reminiscent of apartheid.

“In the end, it will lead to xenophobia, the consequences of which we have lived through in previous years. We don’t want to go back there because, in the main, the people of South Africa aren’t xenophobic,” he wrote in his newsletter this week.

“We acknowledge many communities are frustrated by the apparent inability of police to deal with criminals. However, acts of lawlessness directed at foreign nationals, whether they are documented or undocumented, cannot be tolerated,” Ramaphosa said.

The South African Human Rights Commission called for swift action against criminality in Diepsloot, and warned against residents taking the law into their own hands.

“The brutal murder of Elvis Nyathi is a tragic and outrageous act of vigilantism. The commission is deeply concerned about vulnerable groups, especially foreign nationals, being scapegoated for the prevalence of social ills within communities,” the commission said.

Meanwhile, Gauteng Premier David Makhura has warned residents not to engage in work that should be carried out by law enforcement.

The United Nations has condemned the murder of Nyathi and all xenophobic acts in South Africa.

While we sit down to our seders and cast our mind to the Ukrainian refugees scattered throughout Europe, we should also be thinking of the refugees, asylum seekers, and foreigners in this country who fear for their lives.

Nyathi’s murder is under investigation. No arrests have been made.

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