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Officials Concerned About Anti-Foreigner Violence After World Cup

  • Jeff Swicord

Bishop Paul Verryn offers a blessing to his parishioners in a dimly-lit downtown Johannesburg church

Bishop Paul Verryn offers a blessing to his parishioners in a dimly-lit downtown Johannesburg church

Once the World Cup is over, and the world's attention turns away from South Africa, there are fears there could be another outbreak of xenophobic, or anti-foreigner, violence in Johannesburg, similar to that of two years ago. In May, 2008, gangs of local black South Africans attacked immigrants from Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe - accusing them of taking away jobs, among other grievances. More than 60 people - both immigrants and South Africans - were killed.

In a dimly-lit downtown Johannesburg church, Bishop Paul Verryn offers a blessing to his parishioners.

The songs are in Shona, one of the languages of Zimbabwe. The Church is home to almost 1,500 refugees from outside South Africa. Bishop Verryn says 80 percent of them are political refugees from Zimbabwe. The rest are economic refugees. He is concerned there might be another outbreak of xenophobic violence against foreigners after the World Cup, much like that in 2008 when more than 60 people were killed.

"There has been threats," says Bishop Verryn. "Particularly once the World Cup is finished - 'you must understand that as the world leaves South Africa, so will you.'"

The threats are focused on people like Noeo Muguti, who came to South Africa to escape what he calls the state-sponsored terror of President Robert Mugabe's government. In 2008, he was a parliamentary candidate for the opposition Movement For Democratic Change, or MDC party. After he lost to the Mugabe-backed candidate, the violence began.

"On the 26th of April, while I was away, they abducted my wife and killed her – they abducted her – and she is still missing. Just outside my homestead," Muguti said. "I don't know where she is and I assume and believe she is dead."

Noeo was arrested twice. The first time he was beaten. After the second time, he knew if he did not leave the country he would be killed.

"I endured the worst torture for some days. Again I got a second rib broken," he added. "How I fled from Goromonzi I can not talk about it or I can not explain. I found myself along the Goromonzi-Harare road, waiting for a lift."

Now he lives here, deep within the bowels of the church with no electricity and little light.

Noeo says there are thirty to forty people living in this room. He himself suffers from broken ribs, diabetes and asthma, which make it difficult for him to work.

"At the moment, I am struggling to get medication," said Muguti. "At the moment I am struggling to get adequate food. The Bishop helps here and there, and the most important thing he has done in my life is given me shelter."

Bishop Verryn says there are 40,000 to 50,000 African refugees living in the city. They often work for lower wages than South Africans, and a minority are involved in crime. Many South Africans resent their presence.

"The gossip, the speak on the train, is virulent with regard to this and actually very angry," Verryn said. "That South Africans are feeling cheated upon, they are feeling abused, they feel that foreign nationals are criminals, they can not be trusted."

Bishop Verryn says there have been meetings with local African National Congress members to try to head off any possible violence. He says the ANC officials want to hold a mass meeting, possibly in Soweto, to try to ease tensions.

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