As South Africa bade farewell to the eight African heads of state who attended the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Cape Town, earlier this month, President Thabo Mbeki found himself having to answer yet more questions about last month's attacks on thousands of African migrant workers living in his country.

They stand accused by poor black South Africans of snatching scarce jobs and government-subsidized housing. This recent spate of xenophobic violence left more than 62 people dead, 670 injured and displaced more than 100,000 immigrants in the process.

Although calm was restored on South African streets in the days ahead of the WEF, visiting African dignitaries looked towards Pretoria for guarantees of safety for their nationals. As President Mbeki sought reasons for last month's mayhem, which sent shock waves across the rest of the continent, many immigrants could be seen fleeing the country or slowly trying to rebuild their shattered lives.

However, unlike their fellow Mozambicans or Malawians, for many Zimbabweans the option of going back home simply does not exist. With widespread reports of violence ahead in their country's second presidential poll on 27 June, the evolving crisis has contributed to an unprecedented exodus of Zimbabweans from all over the country.

Political repression

Although the majority of Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa are thought to have left their home country in the hope of finding a better life, thousands more are believed to have fled the political repression by the state and are determined not to return until political and economic conditions improve.

The country is undergoing an unprecedented flight of skills from both the public and private sector to neighbouring South Africa. It is widely thought that up to three million Zimbabweans are currently holed up in South Africa.

The problem is exacerbated by South African visa requirements for Zimbabweans. These are issued by a corrupt South African Home Affairs Department, which is making it increasingly easier to obtain fake documents and work permits.

To make matters worse, economic conditions in South Africa itself have worsened considerably in recent months, worsening the already difficult situation for ordinary South Africans. The country saw its economic growth slowing down sharply during the first three months of the year to a six-year low.

The mining industry, a lifeline for the country's economy, saw its output plummet by more than 22 per cent, the lowest level in four decades. Meanwhile, the worst nation - wide blackout in the country's history is destroying investor confidence in South Africa, and forcing many industries to retrench workers.

Government stands accused of having done little to avert the crisis. Blamed for absence of a long-term vision and being slow in responding to calls for an injection of resources into the public sector, the African National Congress government came under fire for the daily blackouts at the beginning of the year.

With an unofficial unemployment rate as high as 40 per cent, surging food prices, a crumbling healthcare sector, the HIV pandemic, an ever-increasing crime rate, poor South Africans have come to look at African migrants as scapegoats for their socio-economic woes.

The recent criminal violence has besmirched the image of South Africa, as a land of hope and equal opportunities. Granted the fact that the socio-economic ills facing the country will not be addressed in a span of less than two decades, critics contend that the government should shoulder some of the blame for the current crisis.

Its market-oriented macro-economic policy, combined with affirmative action programs, designed to deal with the legacies of the apartheid, has inevitably increased the gap between an  affluent white minority and a small well connected black upper-class  on the one hand, and the rest of the population, many of whom live in abject poverty, on the other.

Skills shortage
The success of these government's policies has been undermined by a failure of service delivery at local level and, more importantly, by the severe skills shortage that the country is facing as a result of emigration.

The question now remains as to how long poor South Africans' frustrations with the increasingly dire socio-economic situation would be targeted towards their African brethren, before being levelled against government.

There will come a time when South Africans will start pointing fingers towards their national leaders, questioning whether their struggle to end apartheid 14 years ago was not all in vain. In the meantime, Zimbabweans living in South Africa are preparing themselves for more difficult times ahead of them.

Also appeared in The New Straits Time (Malaysia) and AllAfrica

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