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Local Arson Targets Zimbabweans in South Africa - 2001-10-22

In South Africa, residents of a squatter camp outside Johannesburg have burnt more shacks to the ground, simply because the occupants are from Zimbabwe. The new fires follow a weekend of mob violence targeting foreigners.

Firefighters battled yet another shack fire in the Zandspruit informal settlement, just north of Johannesburg. The occupants of the blazing shack were nowhere to be found. They may have been at work, but it is more likely they were in hiding.

This was just the latest in a rash of arson fires in the squatter camp that have targeted Zimbabweans.

"Yeah, it has been going on for about three weeks now," said Malcolm Midgley, spokesman for Johannesburg Emergency Services. "And we've had, to date, I think it's about 100 shacks that have been destroyed with this thing. Normally when you have shack fires that get started in the informal settlements, because [they are] poorly constructed - as you can see what it looks like here, they're very close on top of each other - then you normally lose about 100 at a time. But this has been specific, they're targeting specific shacks."

The violence came to a head Sunday, when scores of people lost their homes as a mob rampaged through Zandspruit, torching every Zimbabwean-owned shack they could find. Firefighters were not allowed to come in and battle the blazes, because some members of the mob were armed and were shooting at authorities who tried to intervene.

Monday was much quieter. Authorities say only four shacks were burned, and no injuries were reported.

Analysts see the arson as a sign of the rising xenophobia that has plagued South Africa in recent years. Foreigners have become targets of beatings and murders by people who blame them for the country's high crime rate, or accuse them of stealing jobs away from South Africans. At the recent World Conference Against Racism, hosted in Durban, the government admitted that the problem is growing.

A community leader, Lefty Mukhada, told the South African Press Association local residents will continue burning shacks, until all Zimbabweans have been driven out of the area.

But he denied that the acts are due to xenophobia. He says residents are just trying to drive out criminals and illegal immigrants.

Simon Seabela, 28, says he is afraid to come home from work at night because of the crime that plagues this impoverished community - crime he blames largely on Zimbabweans. "Because these guys - it is them who rob the people. Every day, the carjackers is them. They've got the guns, firearms, knives," he said.

Mr. Seabela admits that most Zimbabweans, including some of his neighbors, are decent people, and not criminals. He says a small gang of lawbreakers has created problems for everyone.

Mr. Seabela wants the Zimbabweans out of Zandspruit, although he does not support shack burning. But he also admits he was part of the mob that rampaged through the squatter camp Sunday. He says a group of men came to his house and threatened to burn it down if he did not join them.

"They came to my house yesterday," he said. "I [went] with them. There was nothing [else] to do, I can't let my shack go down, my things be broken up there. So I just followed and went behind. Now, I am afraid of revenge!"

Police arrested about 20 people Sunday, but that did not put a stop to the arson. They admit they are having trouble tracking down the people really responsible for the shack fires. Residents say they are afraid to identify the ringleaders to authorities.

And so Zandspruit remains dotted with the charred remains of shacks, with more being burnt every day. Between 300 and 500 people are believed to be homeless after three weeks of unrest.

Most Zimbabwean residents, whose shacks have not yet been burnt, appear to have gone into hiding. The emergency services spokesman, Mr. Midgley, says even South African residents of Zandspruit are moving out, because they cannot handle the escalating violence.

Photos by VOA's Challis McDonough