Healing from xenophobic intolerance

Date: January 1, 1970
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Maputo, 22 January. The 14 January release of the human rights World Report 2009 published by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) included some stern words for South Africa, stating that “poverty, unemployment, gender-based and xenophobic violence, and crime remain significant barriers to the enjoyment of human rights; the government’s commitment to address them is inadequate.”

Among it’s many global human rights concerns, the 564-page report highlights what many foreign nationals, both those living in the country and the many who fled following last May’s wave of xenophobic attacks, already know – there is still much work needed to counter xenophobic intolerance.  
Although the intensity of May’s attacks abated, there is still significant cause for concern. Between June and November last year over 30 more deaths were reported, and most recently, the nation was again shocked by media reports that a group of people killed three foreign nationals by throwing them from a building.
The report goes on to say that the government has yet to address longer-term issues of reintegration, resettlement, or xenophobic intolerance in local communities. Though much of the post-May flurry of discussions and strategies to address xenophobia and resettlement has all but disappeared from the national agenda, these longer-term issues remain. For those most affected, the victims, the financial and emotional consequences are long lasting.
Maria da Luz Massingue was among the more than 40 000 Mozambicans who, according to official figures, fled the country when township vigilantes attacked foreign nationals, razing businesses and homes to the ground. From 1990 until this past May, Massingue eked out a living as an owner of a spaza shop in South Africa’s Thembisa Township.
According to Massingue, she had considered that country her second home. Even now, she has nostalgic memories of the life she built in South Africa. "I used to come to Mozambique for major holidays like Easter and Christmas or whenever there were family functions such as weddings or funerals," said the mother of three in an interview conducted at her parents’ home in Maputo’s neighbourhood of Mafalala. "I had no time to be away from my shop, as I was the manager and the shop keeper at the same time."
Massingue made her way back to Mozambique on a train chartered by the Mozambican government with an almost empty suitcase stuffed with clothes and other personal belongings she managed to salvage from her shop and two-roomed shack. Chartered trains carried thousands of the most affected, returning home with varying tales to tell their families.
Even now, Massingue’s shock at the turn around in her life is evident. "I never considered the South Africans would treat us this way – especially as we are their neighbours." For people like Massingue, the emotional and psychological turmoil has been largely left untreated.
Humanitarian workers who received mass numbers of victims arriving in Mozambique focused on treating visible wounds and ensuring the new arrivals had necessities, such as food, as they waited to be reunited with their families. However, for many the emotional wounds run much deeper.
Although there was a considerable humanitarian response to the attacks, there has been much criticism that this was not enough, a sentiment echoed by the HRW report.  For instance, there was, and still is, a need for returnees and affected communities to receive counseling, to promote long term healing. Some suffered not only physical, but also psychological torture, as they saw their friends or family members hacked to death or subjected to inhuman treatment.
According to HRW, the temporary shelters constructed in June 2008 did not meet international standards, and there was insufficient clean water, food, and sanitation, and inadequate healthcare. Lack of protection for women and children resulted in incidents of sexual violence. Again, there is a need to consider longer-term psychological affects for survivors of sexual violence, and ensure that their unique counseling needs are met.
Few will forget the media reports of the tussle between government and those who refused to leave the camps to which they had fled following the attacks. Despite a pending Constitutional Court judgment, the Gauteng provincial government dismantled temporary shelters, leaving hundreds of people without shelter, water, food, and sanitation.
The reported unleashing of the “Red Ants” and police forces – a group composed of the same South Africans who attacked these foreigners from their homes- to dismantle the tents housing the displaced, must have seemed like  a nightmare revisited, a secondary trauma. For those who refused to leave, and those who did participate in re-integration, one can only imagine the fear of returning to the communities they fled.
While it is important not to re-hash the violence, there is a need to not forget and ensure that the affected receive the long-term care they need. The fact that the attacks are included in this well-respected report points to an indication of its weight on the global agenda, we must make sure that issues of healing and peace, stay on the national one.
Fred Katerere is a freelance journalist based in Maputo. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on everyday news.

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