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South African head of church grouping ‘anguished’ about xenophobia

General Secretary of the Nairobi-based All Africa Conference of Churches Rev Mvume Dandala
The head of Africa’s biggest church grouping says he is hurt and tormented by a wave of attacks against foreigners in South Africa that have claimed the lives of at least 50 people, causing self-revulsion in a nation that once prided itself for post-apartheid tolerance.

"As a South African, I stand truly embarrassed, pained and anguished about the recent developments in my country," the Rev Mvume Dandala, a Methodist who is general secretary of the Nairobi-based All Africa Conference of Churches, and who one mediated in the time of reconciliation that followed apartheid in the 1990s.

The violence began in Johannesburg in early May and then spread to other parts of the country including Cape Town, where mobs attacked Somalis and Zimbabweans, and looted their homes and shops.

Those targeted have been mainly immigrants and refugees from other parts of Africa, including Zimbabwe, whose shattered economy has led to at least two million people seeking refuge in South Africa. Media reports say the migrants are accused of taking jobs from South Africans.

Dandala said that events in South Africa may not be an expression of antagonism towards Mozambicans, Zimbabweans or Kenyans, but rather a manifestation of competition for scarce resources.

"I see what is happening in South Africa, as yet another challenge for Africa to find ways and means to overcome the practice of division," said Dandala, in his comments made during a 21-23 May international meeting in Nairobi about aid effectiveness in Africa.

A columnist in South Africa’s Pretoria News wrote on 24 May, "Four years ago, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu caused a spluttering avalanche of indignation when he expressed fears about the situation developing in South Africa as a result of growing gaps between the rich and the poor. ‘Are we not building up much resentment that we may rue later?’ Tutu asked in the 2004 annual Nelson Mandela Memorial lecture. ‘Many, too many, of our people live in gruelling, demeaning, dehumanising poverty. We are sitting on a powder keg’."

The columnist continued: "The big bang may have just happened. It took just two weeks to kill nearly 50 people, displace 15 000 others, and get images of their burning, bloodied and terrified victims into the international spotlight."

Some South Africans who spoke to Ecumenical News International in Nairobi, but did not want to be named, accused supporters of Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, of stirring up the violence.

Zuma himself addressed a crowd of thousands in Springs township near Johannesburg, saying that violence would not solve problems of crime, poverty and unemployment, but would make them worse. He was, however, heckled as he urged an end to the attacks. Some people told him that they voted for the ANC, but they got nothing in return.

In South Africa, local church congregations have been in the forefront of efforts to provide refuge and shelter to the victims of xenophobic attacks.

"Many people have fought a brave battle to welcome those who have been made to feel unwelcome. Suddenly, people appeared from all sides to offer assistance," said Robert Steiner, minister of the United church in the Cape Town suburb of Rondebosch, which received more than 100 people of Somali origin in one day in mid-May.

Within hours, without media publicity, but through informal networks, e-mails and text messages, food, blankets and mattresses were brought to the church by members and concerned members of the public.

The following morning, the refugees were evacuated to safety by the police to the Youngsfield airbase several kilometres away. Later that same day, another 120 Somalis arrived at the same church, seeking refuge, and more are expected in the coming days.

Steiner cited the biblical command in the book of Leviticus for the people of God: "When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you" (Leviticus 19:33-34).

He commented, "At the heart of our faith tradition are stories of those who have been displaced."

Photo : General Secretary of the Nairobi-based All Africa Conference of Churches Rev Mvume Dandala