JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Migrants in South Africa are living in fear of attacks and even death, Amnesty International said Wednesday, days after a Zimbabwean man was burned to death amid renewed violence against foreigners in some poor neighborhoods of Johannesburg.
Zimbabweans, who make up the largest number of migrants in Africa’s most advanced economy, are mostly targeted, according to the human rights group.
Amnesty International accused South African authorities of “inaction” and “a lack of political will” to stem the wave of anti-migrant violence witnessed in recent weeks.
The violence is driven by vigilante groups who blame foreigners from poorer African countries for South Africa's rampant unemployment, said the report.
South Africa's unemployment rate has reached 35%, according to figures released this month by StatsSA. The jobless rate for youths is more than 60%, according to the statistics.
A gang in Johannesburg’s poor Diepsloot township stoned and then burned to death Elvis Nyathi, a Zimbabwean, last week when he failed to produce identity documents showing that he was in the country legally, causing outrage in both South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Nyathi was one of seven people — two foreigners and five South Africans — who lost their lives “after attacks and counter-attacks by non-state actors” in the past week, said Amnesty International's report, describing the deaths as “easily preventable.”
Migrants interviewed in the township by Amnesty said they are living in “constant fear” and “feel unsafe” due to constant harassment from both the police and anti-migrant gangs that move around demanding identity documents from migrants, said the group.
“These attacks represent just the latest wave in a rising tide of violence against migrants in South Africa,” said Amnesty, adding that the assaults are not isolated as they “mirror the heavily-orchestrated, anti-migrant attacks” witnessed in other poor townships in Johannesburg in recent months.
A group calling itself Operation Dudula has held anti-foreigner demonstrations in several South African cities in recent weeks.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa this week criticized the violence.
“We have seen people being attacked, hurt and even killed because of how they looked or because they have a particular accent,” he said in his weekly letter to the nation, appealing for restraint.
In Zimbabwe, authorities say they are engaging the South African government “at all levels,” while the country’s Parliamentarians called for an end to the attacks.
Once one of Africa’s most prosperous economies, Zimbabwe has battled a debilitating economic downturn over the past two decades that critics attribute to economic mismanagement, corruption and poor governance. President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government blames Western-imposed sanctions.
South Africa has said it will no longer renew special permits that allow Zimbabwean migrants to live and work in that country and gave about 250,000 holders of those permits until December this year to apply for regular permits.
It is estimated that as many as 3 million Zimbabweans live in South Africa without proper legal documentation.
Zimbabweans say it is difficult to return home because unemployment is even higher than in South Africa at more than 80%, according to some economists.
“The attacks are deplorable, but they can easily be solved if Zimbabwe fixes its economy,” opposition leader Nelson Chamisa told The Associated Press Wednesday.
"Zimbabweans are forced to run away from their country and live wretched lives elsewhere because they have no future in their own country,” Chamisa said.
Despite the threat of violence in South Africa, many Zimbabweans are still willing to risk sneaking across the border without documentation to try their luck in South Africa to escape the biting conditions at home.
“There is nothing for me here," said Jonathan Sibanda 21, an unemployed resident of the capital, Harare. "I am willing to take that chance rather than die a slow death here in Zimbabwe.”