George Mhanda came to Johannesburg to feed his family, struggling to eat under Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's derelict rule. The Zimbabwean mechanic found a job in a local garage and a room in a small house in Tembisa township, and sent cash home every month. Last week he fled the house ahead of a baying mob hunting down African immigrants, and made for the sanctuary of the Central Methodist Church in the heart of Johannesburg.
He thinks his job is gone but now his priority is just to survive. At night he arms himself with a small pile of bricks for defense against the hostile mobs roaming outside, and settles down to sleep among hundreds of other unwelcome Africans on a flight of stairs in the church.
Mhanda cannot quite believe it has come to this. He had heard of such things in Rwanda and Kenya, of the killers going door to door in search of those who are different. But he never imagined it in Johannesburg, one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan cities on the continent and a beacon for immigrants.
“There’s crime here, we all know that. But people come from all over to Johannesburg. It’s that kind of city, not just a South African city but an African city. I can’t understand it,” he said.
“Now maybe I will have to go back to Zimbabwe. I will wait a few days and see what happens but perhaps it is worse to be here than there,” he said.
South Africa’s bloodletting is a long way from the ethnic killings of Rwanda and Kenya. But at least 56 people have been murdered and tens of thousands forced from their homes as mobs hunted down African immigrants in a dozen Johannesburg suburbs and satellite townships. With it has come looting and rape.
Thousands of immigrants are fleeing home. About 15,000 Mozambicans crossed the border back to their country last Thursday alone. Others packed Johannesburg’s bus and train stations looking for a way out. Many thousands are crammed into police compounds and community halls.
More than 2,000 immigrants, mostly Zimbabweans, are sheltering at the Central Methodist Church. They fill every space, sleeping on the pews, in the corridors, on the stairs. About a third are women and children. Makeshift defensive weapons are everywhere — bricks, wood from broken chairs, metal bars.
There were skirmishes around the church as mobs attacked the refugees last week, and plenty of threats and insults from passersby, before the police parked a couple of cars outside.
In one of the attacks a deaf-mute man who did not hear the warnings of an attack was beaten around the head, leaving a gash down to his skull.
Now the violence is spreading across the country to Cape Town, Durban and the Free State.
Some of the scenes in the townships and squatter camps were disturbingly reminiscent of hatred seen elsewhere.
The mob that drove Mhanda from his home consisted of hundreds of young men armed with machetes, spears, knobkerries (clubs) and metal pipes fashioned to look like guns.
They danced their way through Tembisa in scenes evocative of the bloody township wars when rival black political groups competed for power with the twilight of apartheid in the early 1990s.
“There was hatred in their eyes,” Mhanda said. “They were shouting things in Zulu. I didn’t understand but I knew what they wanted to do, to kill the foreigners. It was very frightening. The people in the street told me to run. They said that if those boys caught me I would be dead for sure.”