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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism