On the evening of Sunday, 11 May 2008, a gang of young men in Johannesburg's Alexandra township forced their way into a hostel on London Road and initiated a merciless attack on residents they deemed to be ‘foreigners’. From this spark, the murder, rape, and looting directed at the bodies and belongings of non-South Africans had spread within days from Alex to informal settlements in Diepsloot and the East Rand, where a Mozambican man, Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuavhe, was burned alive while bystanders laughed. Soon thereafter, similar attacks began to unfold in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern and Western Cape. South African citizens speaking the ‘wrong’ languages – XiTsonga or SiPedi, for example – were also subjected to violent assault. By the time the violence subsided in early June, some 62 people had died – a third of them South African. Hundreds had suffered grievous injuries and tens of thousands had been displaced from their homes, taking shelter in community halls and police stations, or fleeing in terror across the borders in anticipation of an uncertain future.
AN ANXIOUS RESPONSE
Every instance of large-scale civilian violence towards the innocent provokes a response from those not immediately touched by it. Yet in the catalogue of human brutality unfolding daily around the world, 62 murders over a period of three weeks seems barely worth notice. How many times, over the past five years, have roughly that number of bodies been torn apart by a single bomb in a crowded market in Basra or Baghdad? In a blood-soaked, mediatised world, everyday ethnic or religious violence – much less organised warfare – evokes little more than indifference from the jaded audiences of CNN and BBC World.
Yet the South African story clearly struck a nerve, arousing moral outrage on a global scale: ‘The world watched in shock as a wave of xenophobic violence engulfed South Africa,’ wrote a journalist for Spiegel International Online in an article that bore the title ‘South Africa disgusted with itself’. Had the dream of democratic redemption and reconciliation embodied in the saintly figure of Nelson Mandela reverted to the nightmare of internecine hatred and warfare? Had the daring declaration in South Africa's pioneering Constitution – ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it’ – been dismissed with contempt by the chanting of xenophobic slogans and the flourishing of machetes?