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"As for Malawians, talk of regional integration is merely a joke as they visit the holding centre in Blantyre, to see if their relations are among the returnees." Akwete Sande gives a Malawian perspective on the xenophobic violence in South Africa.

The recent xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa particularly Malawians, Zimbabweans and Mozambiquans have taught several lessons to leaders of Southern Africa.

The first lesson is that their so-called regional integration is an empty message that helps nobody. The people on the ground are hardly affected by their lofty goals of uniting the region, says Joseph Ndhlovu 27, a Johannesburg high school teacher who was among the returnees in the first of the seven buses evacuating over 15,000 Malawians from South African two weeks ago.

Ndhlovu is a second generation resident, born in South Africa of Malawian parents and has never been to Malawi.

“I went to school in Zimbabwe and moved back to South Africa 8 years ago. My parents are buried in South Africa. I don’t know anyone in Malawi,” he says.

According to social welfare officials who are running a temporary holding centre for the returnees in the commercial city Blantyre, people like Ndhlovu will need long term assistance while trying to locate their kin. That means that the government which has already spent a fortune transporting them from South Africa will have to dig deeper into its coffers.

There are many like Ndhlovu among the bitter returnees because Malawi, one the poorest of colonial Africa, used to be the source of cheap labour for the more affluent colonies in Southern Africa. Zimbabwe and South Africa were the favoured destinations due to their better economies.

Mozambiquans and Malawians have until recently have been credited for hard work and honesty. In fact, the first president of Malawi, Hastings Banda, worked in the Johannesburg mines in the 1920s before embarking on a long educational career in the USA and UK

According to the ministry of labour, organized recruitment of Malawians to work in the mines was a source of revenue not only for the illiterate Malawians most of whom managed to build decent houses upon return but for government also.

These organized recruitment ended in the 1980’s after most of the Malawians were accused of spreading HIV to South African nationals because as migrant labourers they were not allowed to bring their spouses.

But the trek Southwards was never been curbed, many Malawians continued to go South and in some cases professionals disappointed with poor working conditions at home made South Africa their new home.

Mary a mother of 3 who arrived home with a small bag of clothes narrates her ordeal.

“Both my husband and I were working. We were in South Africa for 9 years, and built our own house. In the fateful day, my husband was working night shift and I was alone with our three kids. I heard a nock and when I opened the door I found five people armed, they were my neighbours but they ordered me out, told me to run away or else they would kill me. I pleaded with them to allow me stay for the night but they refused. I managed to take my children out and run to the nearest Police station. For three days we had no food until social workers came to our rescue. I have not heard from my husband. I don’t know what happened to him,” she laments.

Unlike Ndhlovu Mary had relatives who came to pick her up and took her back to Zomba, about 100 Km from Blantyre.

The Chairperson of Malawi Human Rights Consultative Committee, Undule Mwakasungura and the Director of Malawi Human Rights Commission, Dorothy Nyasulu issued statements condemning the attacks. They also organized a demonstration against the xenophobic attacks and petitioned the South African ambassador to compensate the victims.

The South African ambassador described the events in her country as embarrassing.

The media reports that over 60 lives have been lost and 250000 displaced but Malawians are not sure how many of their kin have died. The initial figure was five, but it is unclear how many lost their lives.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs says it has no figures accounting for the number of Malawians living in South Africa because most of them do not register with the embassy.

A human rights activist who once worked at the Malawi embassy in Pretoria says Malawians never report to the embassy because they have bitter memories from when security agents used to harass them and accuse them of working with rebels during the regime of Kamuzu Banda. He says most of Malawian embassies back then were full of security personnel and hence people stayed away. “At one time we had four police officers at the embassy, we didn’t know their work nor did we interact with them. This was true of all Malawian embassies” he said.

The South African media has blamed the country’s security chiefs for failing to notice that there was growing tension in the townships. The South Africans accuse foreigners of taking their jobs, fueling crime, taking their women and of prospering at their expense. Some have blamed Thabo Mbeki for fueling these sentiments through his policy of quiet diplomacy over the economic and political problems in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

An editorial in a local Malawian daily paper argued that careless statements by Mbeki did not help matters because one wonders - if indeed there is no crisis in Zimbabwe why would 3 million Zimbabweans flock to South Africa?

The media argues too that the huge influx of Zimbabweans in South Africa was bound to create problems and that regional leaders are to blame for the mayhem.

Andrew Phiri, a Malawian who has lived in both South Africa and Botswana [another country renowned for anti-foreign sentiments] says these kind of attacks have always happened but on a smaller scale but usually targeted at Zimbabweans.

“There have been sporadic attacks but not to the level we have seen today. Our leaders need to resolve the Zimbabwean problem or else the region remains sitting on a time bomb. South Africans cannot expect to prosper when neighbours are suffering. What if the nationals of neighbouring countries seek revenge? South Africa has huge investments in the region and its nationals are there - will they be safe if there are revenge attacks?” he argues.

While the economy of Malawi appears to be flourishing, unemployment is said to be high. Little manufacturing is taking place as the country continues to be a huge market for imports. This means that for considerable amount of time, the country’s youths will continue to pursue greener pastures abroad. South Africa, despite the current problems will still be an attractive destination.

“I will wait for some time but I will be going there again. Malawians gardeners, cooks and tailors are always in demand there. Even if I worked hard here I can never dream of buying a TV and subscribing to DStv [a satellite television]. What has happened should be regarded as an accident,” says, Francis who refused to disclose his last name.

Francis has lived in the most volatile township - Alexandra in Johannesburg. He too blames president Mbeki for the current problems. He discloses that tension started when Mbeki said there was no crisis in Zimbabwe. The locals started telling Zimbabweans and others to go back to their countries since there was no crisis.

“Though it appears they targeted Malawians, Mozambiquans and Zimbabweans, it should be known that there are other nationals that speak the same languages as South Africans while others from Kenya, Nigeria etc live in big suburbs away from the poverty” he says.

Some employers have hinted that foreign workers are hardworking and they hope the situation will return to normal and the foreigners will return. But such sentiments are usually discounted by union leaders who feel some employers want foreign staff purely to exploit them because they are desperate to have food and shelter and they don’t bargain for better terms.

As for Malawians, talk of regional integration is merely a joke as they visit the holding centre in Blantyre, to see if their relations are among the returnees.

*Akwete Sande is a freelance journalist based in Blantyre, Malawi.

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