Immigration crisis grows in S. Africa

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ALEXANDRA, South Africa -- The most crowded section of this, the most crowded of South Africa's black townships, is called Maputo, named after the capital of Mozambique. This Maputo is a maze of shacks made of cardboard and plastic sheets and whatever else can be scrounged, next to the township's graveyard.

It is a nightmare vision of urban life, but the residents of Maputo have traveled hundreds of miles to live here -- crossing an electrified border fence, evading the wild animals that roam the game park along the border with Mozambique, and arriving with the hope of finding jobs.

The people in the fetid shacks have come from the continent's poorest countries to the continent's richest. But they are greeted by demands by black South Africans that poor, black immigrants go home -- that they leave South Africa.

"They take people's jobs," said Walter Mojapelu, spokesman for a new organization of Alexandra residents that has targeted the immigrant issue. "No South African is willing to work for 50 rand [about $15] a week, but they will work for that. So lots of South Africans lose jobs."

It is an argument that resonates in Alexandra, a dusty square mile that is home to an estimated 500,000 people, almost all of them desperately poor, but within walking distance of some of Johannesburg's wealthiest neighborhoods.

Unemployment in Alexandra is at more than 50 percent, and crowding is so extreme that the basic unit of civic measurement is not a city block but a front- or back yard, since the typical yard has 10 to 15 shacks, each housing a family.

The longtime residents complain about shacks spilling onto the sidewalks and hawkers paying no rent and undercutting longer-established businesses. And the people who are blamed are the township's tens of thousands of immigrants.

Illegal immigration has thus become one of the most volatile issues facing the country's black-led government. After recent anti-immigrant marches, armed residents of Alexandra have forced immigrants out of shanties, and immigrants suspected of serious crimes have been seriously injured by mobs.

"It is very clear that the community itself is to some extent divided over the issue of foreigners," said Moses Van Der Merwe, the Alexandra organizer for the African National Congress, the party of President Nelson Mandela. "This is a very difficult, emotional issue."

The ANC charges that people opposing the immigrants are being encouraged by the predominantly white National Party in an attempt to discredit the ANC. Mr. Mojapelu counters that the ANC is looking to immigrants to go to the polls illegally and vote

for the ANC.

Crime used as issue

Crime is an issue used by both sides: Anti-immigrant groups hold the newcomers responsible for crimes large and small, while the ANC and civic associations say that well-established gangs are forcing immigrants from their homes and selling the houses.

"Nobody has the right to take the law into his or her own hand," said Philemon Machitela of the Alexandra Civic Association. "When you have unemployment like we do here, people get frustrated. The gangster element seizes on the whole thing and then even people who are not immigrants become victims."

At the Princess Court Apartments, a fairly new building that is home to some of Alexandra's middle class, a woman talked about the fate of two immigrant families who had lived in the

township more than 20 years but were forced to leave.

"This was not the right thing to do in the new South Africa," she said. "These people are black, just like us."

Downhill from the apartments is the Maputo community, where the newest residents have come because their relatives or friends were already there. Everyone can count on finding a shack to share before building one of his own.

"About half find jobs," said Thomas Mnsi, an immigrant from Malawi and a spokesman for the community. "The rest get by, selling vegetables or cold drinks on the street."

There is no welfare, no safety net here or in the countries from which the immigrants came, other than the security traditionally provided in African communities, where extended families look after their own. Anyone with a job is expected to spread his paycheck around.

The immigrants come from Mozambique, where the government barely functioning; Angola, ravaged by civil war; Malawi, emerging from a decades-long dictatorship that has just ended; Zimbabwe, where a restructuring of the economy has further impoverished the poor, and from other African states.

The South African government is reluctant to dump the immigrants back on its neighbors, arguing that the only solution will be economic development of the region. And not only are these states South Africa's neighbors, they are the countries that supported the ANC during its long struggle against apartheid, and harbored thousands of South African exiles -- making it all the harder for the government to order thousands of immigrants home.

'That was different'

Mr. Mojapelu of the Concerned Alexandra Citizens Association is one of the former South African exiles, having lived elsewhere for six years. "But that was different," he said. "We were there trying to prepare to return to our country. We were not there to disrupt the local economy."

The immigrant problem is not confined to Alexandra. In a recent study on black expectations, the South Africans who were being surveyed kept raising the issue of immigration, even though it was not a subject designated for discussion.

"Group after group brings it up spontaneously," researcher Craig Charney wrote in his report for the Johannesburg-based Center for Policy Studies.

"It is raised with a vigor, insistence and frequency that signals the rise of an important new question on the public agenda."

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