A visiting South African friend’s immediate reaction upon meeting a Rwandan with family in South Africa was to ask if they were ok. An awkward silence…the answer was yes. A sigh of relief.
But for thousands of others relief is yet to come. The violence has subsided and more than 1,000 people have been arrested but tens of thousands have been left destitute and homeless.
Victims of the xenophobic violence have been moved to camps. Safe from mobs but their future is uncertain. The makeshift camps are without blankets to fend off the cold and hot water. Many are sick and children are not going to school.
The authorities and the refugees now have to figure out what to do next. Many have up and left. About 40,000 Mozambicans have gone back to their country, while Zimbabweans, facing severe political violence and poverty at home, have either reluctantly returned home, or opted for Zambia or Botswana.
Statistics are unreliable but South Africa could be home to as many as 5 million foreigners. What future for those staying put?
The government has said that it will provide the camps for only two months, after which people will either have to rebuild their lives in South Africa or go back home.
Many feel trapped. Frightened to return to live next to the neighbours who tried to kill them but equally afraid to return to their countries of origin. Officials are said to working hard to combat xenophobia. Radios are broadcasting anti-xenophobic messages.
But if the very problems that caused the violent outburst – high unemployment rates, soaring food and petrol prices, and feelings of being forgotten by the government – are not tackled, the future of foreigners in South Africa will continue to look uncertain.