Echoes of apartheid as man burnt alive in race rampage
THE images recall the worst days of apartheid. A hunched figure on his knees in the middle of a township street, the human form barely visible through flames and smoke, while an angry crowd whistles and jeers as policemen try to extinguish the blaze.
The picture of a man being burnt alive made the front pages of most newspapers in South Africa yesterday after a week-long outbreak of xenophobic violence reached new levels of horror.
It led to calls for tough action by the authorities to bring the situation under control and more criticism of the lame-duck government of President Mbeki, which is fighting to maintain its credibility.
The victim in the pictures, a Zimbabwean, is believed to have died later in hospital.
The wrath of the country's teeming townships is not directed at apartheid agents or informers, but at foreigners -- fellow blacks mainly from Zimbabwe and Mozambique -- who are accused of stealing locals' jobs and adding to the high crime rates.
At least 22 people have been killed since the violence began last Tuesday in the northern-Johannesburg township of Alexandra. It has since spread, forcing immigrants in townships to run for their lives. Many are ordered to leave their meagre possessions behind.
The violence has focused attention on the failure of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to improve life for those at the bottom of the country's social pyramid. Unemployment in the townships is well above the national average of 25pc and basic services are in short supply.
Yesterday, crowds of foreigners sought refuge at packed community centres and police stations on the edge of townships across Gauteng province, where Johannesburg is located. Police fired rubber bullets and teargas at gangs of men who threatened to burn down foreigners' shacks.
In Reiger Park, a slum area outside East Rand, Johannesburg, at least two people were burnt and dozens of residents were forced to flee. The violence spread to downtown Johannesburg, where hundreds of foreign families squat in buildings, which were vacated by South Africans who abandoned the area because of crime and prostitution.
"People are having to find scapegoats, this is about competition for diminishing resources . . . Mbeki has tried to de-racialise the economy but only a very small number at the top have really benefited," Sipho Seephe, the president of the South Africa Institute of Race Relations, said.
The government of Mr Mbeki has overseen economic growth, which created an emerging black middle class, but about 40pc of the population -- 80pc of which is black -- is little better off than at the end of apartheid in 1994.
It is the return of necklacing -- when alleged traitors had rubber tyres put over their necks and set on fire -- that has most appalled liberal commentators and many ordinary citizens.
Once again Mr Mbeki -- who is derided at home and abroad because of his "quiet diplomacy" towards Robert Mugabe -- finds himself in the line of fire. For years the government was warned that the influx of Zimbabweans into the country was straining relations among the poorest sections of the community.
An estimated three-million exiles from Zimbabwe, most of them illegal immigrants, are now competing along with large numbers of Malawians, Somalis and Mozambicans for scarce jobs. Poor South Africans accuse them of jumping housing queues by paying bribes to corrupt officials.
The economic policies of Mr Mbeki created a booming black middle class but have done little to help the country's poorest. This contributed to him losing the ANC presidency to Jacob Zuma, a populist, last year. His reaction to the current crisis -- to call an inquiry -- is dismissed as typical "Mbeki fudging".
one political commentator said: "People want action, on jobs, on Zimbabwe, on crime -- instead we get reviews and inquiries. We know the causes of these problems, it is a failure of leadership."
A radio talk show host accused Mr Mbeki and his denialist cabinet of not having the faintest idea about what is happening in the townships. Mathews Phosa, the ANC treasurer-general, called for Mr Mbeki to step down early -- a call from which the ANC leadership later distanced itself.
The government is blamed for failing to grant many of the Zimbabweans refugee status, leaving them few options but to work as illegal immigrants. (© The Times, London)