Thursday, July 7

Documentation of violence against migrants in South Africa: photo essay | South Africa

In May 2008, a series of xenophobic attacks accompanied by widespread looting and vandalism left at least 62 dead, 1,700 injured and 100,000 displaced in South Africa. The violence started in Alexandra in Johannesburg after a local community meeting in which migrants were blamed for crime and “stealing” jobs. In a matter of days, the attacks had spread across the country, and the East Rand settlement of Ramaphosa became one of the areas that witnessed inhumanity at an unthinkable level.

A man and a boy climb under a low barbed wire fence.

On May 18, Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, 35, was beaten, stabbed, covered with his own blankets and set on fire. The next day, a 16-year-old migrant was hacked, burned and left for dead in a garbage dump. Miraculously, he survived. Across the country, tens of thousands fled their homes and crowded into community centers and police stations for protection until they could be transferred to makeshift camps.

In the years that followed, prosecution of the perpetrators was slow, socio-economic change was negligible, and the anger of poor South Africans, who have yet to see the promised fruits of their 1994 release, simmered …

A man balances on top of the church pews to polish a stained glass wind

  • Congregator Paulin Chikomb, above, was part of the cleanup team that restored a church after migrants vacated it in late 2015. He later became a welfare counselor for traumatized migrants in the city.

In April 2015, an upsurge of xenophobic attacks began in Durban and soon spread to Johannesburg. Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini was accused of fueling the violence with his comments, which were reported as: “We’re going to get lice. We must remove the ticks and place them outside in the sun. We ask foreign nationals to pack their belongings and send them back. “

Zwelithini claimed that the media had misrepresented his comments. In that month alone, at least eight people died and hundreds were displaced.

Crowd of people raise their hands trying to catch food thrown from a small shop

  • A group of youth ransack a convenience store in Meadowlands, Soweto, as anti-migrant sentiment sweeps the area in January 2015.

Church minister in bloodstained white robes

Perhaps the most brutal of all was the murder of Emmanuel Sithole in Alexandra, which was captured on camera by James Oatway. These images brought to millions of people around the world the true horror of xenophobia and, despite the government denying that the murder was xenophobic, the army was deployed the day after it was published. For the next three years, the violence continued across the country and some African governments began repatriating their citizens.

A man brandishes a shovel during the riots

James Oatway, Johannesburg, March 2020

Whenever new violence breaks out, my stomach begins to knot with tension. Every time I hear rumors of attacks or see a new brochure on my phone that says “foreigners must go”, I get palpitations and panic attacks. I am distracted and suffocated with fear as I remember the brutality of the previous attacks. I feel angry and frustrated that we have allowed these attacks to continue.

It is no coincidence that the most brutal xenophobic attacks occur in areas where poverty and unemployment are worst. Ramaphosa Settlement, Makause Settlement, Zandspruit, Diepsloot, Alexandra, Jeppe Hostel, Khayelitsha. These are places where it is not easy to live. Places where poor South Africans feel disappointed and forgotten.

A man pours water from a bucket onto the burning remains of a hut.

  • A man fights the flames that engulf a hut in Ramaphosa. Tens of thousands of people were displaced, more than 342 stores looted and 213 set on fire in the weeks of violence that hit the country in May and June 2008.

Man bends down to read his Bible in a field of dead grass

  • A refugee reads the Bible in a temporary shelter in a field outside a police station in East Rand, 2008. Camps and makeshift shelters had to be quickly erected and some migrants applied for repatriation to their home countries.

In 2008, seven years before photographing the attack on Emmanuel Sithole, I spent many hours working in the same area – ironically nicknamed “Pan” by the nearby Pan Africa Mall – photographing xenophobic attacks.

The man is at the door of his brightly painted store.

  • Since Ethiopia-born Getachew Sugebo arrived in South Africa in 2004, he has been the victim of xenophobic violence, and his Together clothing store has been invaded ‘many times’

Woman sitting behind a sewing machine surrounded by shelves of brightly colored fabric

In 2015, not much had changed; and even today sewage seeps into the streets from rows of plastic bucket toilets. Residents must queue at communal taps to get water. We see the same violent scenes, in the same depressing areas.

But even in these unacceptable conditions, can anyone justify violent attacks and killings? We hope this book serves as a historical record and as a call to action. We want the debate to continue. We want people to think before they act.

The men stand with their hands against a brick wall waiting to be searched by the police in blue jackets and baseball caps.

Alon Skuy, Johannesburg, March 2020

The xenophobic violence that occurred in May 2008 was the beginning of what some might call the most conflictive era that has gripped South Africa since the dawn of democracy in 1994.

Twelve years later, intermittent attacks and chaos continue to shake the foundations of this fragile state.

Monochrome image of a group of young men brandishing weapons
Monochrome image of a police officer putting his hand on a man's arm while gesturing in anger.

  • South African police dissuade a group of migrant men, enraged by looting and attacks, from fighting a militant crowd of protesters, April 2015

Monochromatic image of a young man in a hallway with his hands above his head as police enter the rooms around him.

By documenting this violence, I, along with many other photographers, have tried to make sense of the inexplicable torment and cycles of unrest that migrants, as well as South Africans, have been pushed into without any real intervention from the state.

Portrait of a man dressed dramatically in red surrounded by a deep shadow

When I think of these darkest days and nights, things that I had suppressed for a long time stir in me. I can’t imagine what those who receive these attacks must live with.

Minister in black and white robes holds a candle together with members of a church congregation

During the process of looking at these photographs so closely now, years later, I remember how unprepared South Africa was for such waves of violence.

With this collection of images, a hauntingly unfinished story, we wish to create a deeper dialogue on the issues at stake; and honor those who are so deeply affected by intolerance, whose resistance we hope will last longer than this tragic period in our history.

Two women hide behind a red car on a city street with a police officer in the background

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