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Anti-immigrant violence rekindles disturbing apartheid-era images in South Africa

CBS News correspondent Debora Patta reflects on anti-immigrant violence that has cropped up in South Africa.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - It always begins out of sight, usually under the cover of darkness. This is the nature of South Africa's dirty little secret. Ugly, xenophobic violence that kills in ways that are hard to imagine. Just as mobs sharpening their machetes in front of a cordon of police officers ready to open fire became a defining image of the government-sponsored violence in the days of apartheid, so too has it become a defining image of the new South Africa.

During apartheid, black supporters of the Inkhata Freedom Front attacked African National Congress supporters in violence that we now know was fueled by a white apartheid "third force." Now it seems it is fueled by poverty, ignorance and desperation.

It is not the first time that Africans from elsewhere on this continent have been the victims of raging, angry mobs in South Africa. In 2008 a wave of xenophobic violence hit townships in Gauteng; when it was over, 60 people lay dead. "Never again" and "not in my name" eventually were the words that resounded across this country. And yet here we are again - at least five people have been killed, shops looted and armed security forces patrol flashpoints because of fears the violence will rage out of control.

The deadly anti-immigrant attacks have forced more than 2,000 foreigners to flee their homes, according to one aid organization.

After years of unemployment, poverty and rampant crime - with no relief coming, people are taking the law into their own hands. Anger, desperation and a sense of having nothing to lose has seen many South Africans lose their humanity and resort to brutal violence.

The targets are foreigners, but not any foreigners - rather people that live side-by-side, next-door in South Africa's sprawling townships. Ethiopians, Somalis, Mozambicans, Zimbabweans, Malawians - African brothers and sisters from across this continent who have come to this country seeking a better life. Many of these countries supported South Africa during the dark days of apartheid and often suffered for it. They were raided, bombed and attacked by apartheid security forces and yet they stood firm in their commitment to rooting out inequality and a dehumanizing system of legalized racism.

And now with no one else to blame, people are accusing these foreign African nationals of stealing their jobs, their homes, their livelihood. It is of course a baseless accusation. Africans from across this continent - living in South Africa - actually contribute to this economy. One study done by a local group, the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO), found that far from stealing jobs, nearly 50 percent of staff employed by foreigners are South African. And the study points out that these African nationals rent rooms and homes from South Africans and buy their supplies from South African wholesalers. They are creating employment in the informal sector and because, like so many immigrant communities they are successful and driven, they become the target of envy and rage.

In formal society, there is now much hand-wringing, campaigning and hash-tagging. People want to know what can be done to stop it, why it is happening, and whether this evil will ever leave us. Some blame Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini for saying foreigners should go, which, while it certainly helped spark this latest round of violence, is not the root cause of it. In the end, the job of unpacking reasons for xenophobia is not so complicated.

So often the subtext that is taken from pictures and descriptions include a claim that these people are inherently violent, and inherently hate people who are not South African. Some of that subtext will have a racial tinge to it. And while it can be difficult to understand being part of a group attacking a shop or running after someone with a panga, one thing can be ascertained very easily: The main reason they are doing this is because they can. They are not afraid of the consequences. They do not believe they will be punished. They also feel they have nothing to lose. The two are obviously related to each other. If South Africa can fix its crime problem and follow through on the arrest and conviction of perpetrators, this could certainly help solve part of the problem. Black South Africans are the most affected by crime in South Africa. They have very little policing in townships and many violent crimes go unpunished.

Then there is another issue. It is well documented that poor people are doing this. But the link between them being poor and xenophobic violence breaking out needs to be better understood.

This points not just to the lack of economic growth but also the unequal nature of that growth. Poor countries have violence and yet this violence is different, and this country's inequality must play a role in that. Perhaps, in the minds of the people perpetrating this violence, there is the idea that they need to vent on the "haves." In this case, the "haves" are the foreign nationals who live in their communities. There may also be a feeling that the consequences of attacking other rich South Africans may in fact be greater than attacking foreign nationals, or richer South Africans are perhaps just better protected.

But more than other reasons, the violence points to a lack of hope that this economy will improve. If a poor person living in a South African township is literally starving to send their child to school in the hope that that child will be the last of the family to grow up poor, they are unlikely to engage in this violence. There is something to lose. But for someone who has lost hope in the economy, in the education system, they may see no point in the future.

There is a scarcity of resources in South African townships and the government has failed in service delivery in many areas. This frustration after 21 years of a democracy is resulting in anger, envy and in some cases rageful violence. Add to that a shrinking economy and you create a lethal cocktail.

When South Africa's economy suffers, xenophobia thrives.

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