Different shades of racism in South Africa

The murder of taxi driver Mido Macia points to increasing xenophobia in the country

Different shades of racism in South Africa

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Mido Macia went to South Africa in search of a better life. The 27-year-old Mozambican was working as a taxi driver in a poor suburb of Benoni, a city famous for being the birthplace of Hollywood star Charlize Theron. Macia, a tall man with a strong jaw, supported his wife and five-year-old daughter, both living in Mozambique. He was one of thousands of immigrants from across Africa who travel to the country, hoping to get a foothold in the continent’s largest economy. For some, the move is successful, but for others, tragic.

Arrested by police for refusing to move his taxi, Macia was tied to the back of a police van, dragged hundreds of metres to the police station, and died three hours later. Nine South African police officers are charged with murder; they have been denied bail while they await trial next month.

“South Africa is an angry nation,” Graca Machel, a native of Mozambique and wife of former president Nelson Mandela, said at Macia’s funeral service. “We are on the precipice of something very dangerous with the potential of not being able to stop the fall.”

Police are a big part of the country’s xenophobia problem, says Gareth Newham, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. “A lot of people who have joined the police aren’t criminally vetted; we don’t know if they have drivers’ licences. You get people who aren’t fully trained, who don’t understand human rights.”

Stung by reaction to recent incidents of police brutailty, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa announced recently the government was going so far as to give the public vetting powers over who is fit to become a police officer, publishing candidates’ names first in the media.

Newham reported that the number of brutality-related criminal cases opened against police officials had increased from 416 in 2001 and 2002, to 1,722 10 years later, an average of almost five cases a day. He said 41 per cent of the population does not trust the police at all, and 35 per cent say they are scared of them. The latest report from the Independent Complaints Directorate records 4,923 complaints against the police and 720 deaths in police custody or as a result of police action. In 2001, police from Pretoria went on trial for setting their dogs on illegal Mozambican immigrants as a training exercise.

Stefane Ricardo Ussivane, a Mozambican who works in Maputo as a teacher, was studying to be a computer technician outside of Johannesburg in 2008. His family was begging him to return home. “I said, ‘I’m fine, I’m safe,’ ” says the 33-year-old. “In my zone, it was calm, it was okay. I didn’t suffer, like those people whose houses were burning.”

Ussivane avoided being harassed by speaking whatever language people were using. “When I came across the policeman, if he’s speaking Zulu, I speak Zulu. If he’s speaking Tsonga, I’ll speak Tsonga.” Ussivane rarely spoke English. “If we speak English, they assume we are Nigerian.”

Jose Nascimento, the Macia family’s lawyer, believes South Africa should call xenophobia for what it is. “In the United Kingdom, if an Englishman ill-treats an Irishman, or ill-treats a Spaniard, they don’t use the term ‘xenophobia,’ ” he says. “They use the term ‘racism.’ ”