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Local South Africans at Freedom Day picnic rally against xenophobia
Diplomatic Pouch / May 29, 2015

By Larry Luxner

An annual picnic by Washington-area South Africans to celebrate the end of apartheid took on darker overtones last month, after unknown Africans said they’d kill participants in revenge for a wave of xenophobic attacks that have claimed the lives of foreigners in Durban, Johannesburg and other major cities back home.

The frightening threats against the 21st annual South African Freedom Day picnic in Ellicott City, Md. — made via Facebook and other social media outlets — never materialized, possibly thanks to a heavy police presence.

Even so, only 500 or so people attended the April 25 festival at Centennial Park, down from 1,000 in past years, said one of the picnic’s organizers, Margaret Perakis. Many participants wore T-shirts with the likeness of Nelson Mandela inside a map of Africa, and the message: “Say NO to Xenophobia!”

Perakis urged her fellow South Africans to ignore the threats and come to Ellicott City anyway.

“For those who love peace, for those who believe in peace, for those who want to stand in solidarity against xenophobia in South Africa, this is the day to do so,” she said. “Let us show the world that a few people who committed crimes against our brothers and sisters will not separate us.”

The most recent spate of anti-immigrant attacks took place in mid-April, barely a week before the Maryland picnic. They followed a speech by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini in which he warned foreigners to “pack their bags and go” because they were taking jobs away from South African citizens — 25 percent of whom are unemployed.

In the ensuing violence, foreign-owned shops were looted and set on fire, while machete-wielding locals hacked some immigrants to death.

Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe evacuated thousands of their citizens from South Africa, while a Johannesburg-based energy conglomerate sent about 340 of its employees home from neighboring Mozambique for fear of reprisal attacks. A radio station in Zambia even refused to play South African music, in solidarity with the victims.

Some two million foreigners live in South Africa, where they comprise about 4 percent of the total population. But this isn’t the first time since white-minority rule ended in 1994 that immigrants have been singled out for violence. In 2008, at least 62 people died in xenophobic attacks that swept this “rainbow nation” of 53 million.

“On behalf of the South African government, I would like to send condolences to all those people who were caught up in the unwarranted violence that took place in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Johannesburg,” said Mninwa Mahlangu, South Africa’s envoy to the United States. “We cannot allow that type of action to happen to our people.”

The ambassador, quoting the late Nelson Mandela, urged his fellow South Africans to “live together without fear” while dealing with the poverty, unemployment and inequality raging back home.

Then Mahlangu cut a cake resembling the flag of South Africa, sang “Happy Birthday” and officially declared the picnic underway. Traditional dancers performed onstage and South Africans enjoyed braai — a traditional barbecue — with grilled boerewors, marinated chicken, sausages, steaks, pork and lamb chops.

Mashobani Moruthane, a young man from the northern province of Limpopo, said he came to demonstrate solidarity with his fellow South Africans.

“We’re gathering here today to show the world that we do not agree with what is happening back home,” he said. “We are against the xenophobia. We’re gathering to hold hands and stand together as one.”

An elderly lady speaking in Portuguese, who did not give her name, said “I’m very happy to be here, but I’m very much saddened by how my fellow, innocent Mozambicans are being brutalized in South Africa, even though they didn’t do anything.”

In addition to nationals from countries that border South Africa, citizens of Nigeria, Congo, Ethiopia and Somalia have also been targeted.

Botswana-born Mimmy Polan is a director at Southern African Community USA, a Maryland-based organization that has condemned the recent attacks as “horrific” and “heinous crimes against humanity.”

“We felt that as Botswanans in the DMV area, we should come here to support our neighbor, South Africa,” she said. “We are with them in this unfortunate situation.”

Added Shareen Mphakalahla of Pretoria: “I’m here to celebrate South Africa’s independence, but I would like very much for the xenophobic attacks to come to a halt, because we are all humans and we’re all Africans. It’s just senseless to kill one another over nationality.”

Necton Mhura, Malawi’s newly arrived ambassador to the United States, said about 3,000 of the hundreds of thousands of Malawians living and working in South Africa have since been brought home for their own safety.

“The Malawi government managed to repatriate those who were affected, and the country has received them very well,” Mhura told the Pouch. “Relations between Malawi and South Africa remain very cordial, and have always been historically very good. But we need concerted efforts by the African countries to find a solution, both within the African Union and also within SADC [Southern African Development Community].”

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