Raymond Jaravaza, Showbiz Correspondent
THE constant fear of being sexually violated is a dreaded feeling that 34-year-old Sithokozile Mlilo* lives with on a daily basis when she walks on the streets of Johannesburg, South Africa, especially at night.
It’s a dreaded feeling that takes over her thoughts every time she walks out of her apartment door. That she has lived in central Johannesburg, South Africa’s business and economic hub, since relocating from Bulawayo in 2008, counts for nothing.
The recent spate of violence against foreigners by South African nationals is not helping the situation and has left Mlilo caught between a rock and a hard place.
To return home or remain in Johannesburg in the hope that she and her compatriots will survive and live to tell the horrifying tales of xenophobic attacks is a tough decision to make for the mother of two.
It’s no secret that both men and women of foreign nationalities are victims of xenophobic attacks and the extreme violence knows no gender yet Mlilo feels the level of sexual harassment of women, especially foreigners, is on the rise because “the men feel they are entitled to treat females with disdain just for being non-South African”.
“There is nothing as horrible as living in Johannesburg right now if one is a woman and a foreigner for that matter. We live in constant fear of being sexually harassed on a daily basis, but the harassment is now at another level after they started attacking foreigners.
“The other day my friend was groped by three men at a taxi rank for wearing a short skirt and one of them said she deserved it because she is a foreigner. I was baffled when other women, whom I presumed to be South African because of their accents, openly supported the men instead of coming to her defence,” said Mlilo.
In a sexual context, groping is defined as touching another person in an unwelcome sexual way. The term generally has a negative connotation in many societies, and the groping is considered as sexual assault.
Earlier this week, thousands of South African women took to the streets to protest against the government’s failure to deal with rising violence against women in the wake of a string of brutal attacks that have shocked the country. Women from across the country marched to Parliament in Cape Town dressed in black and purple in commemoration of those who lost their lives to violent crimes against women.
Friends turned foes!
Having worked in the same restaurant for the past four years, Mlilo says she has forged friendships with her colleagues, a majority of them South Africans, but now feels there is a measure of distrust between Zimbabweans and locals.
“They feel that if it weren’t for us (Zimbabweans) working in the restaurant, then their brothers, sisters and cousins that are loafing around in the townships would be working. The situation is so tense and we don’t know if we can trust them not to attack us and push us out of employment. It’s surprising how friendships that were built over four years can be ruined in a matter of days,” she said.
In the past few days, rioters have caused chaos in Johannesburg, torching vehicles and looting shops, many of which are owned by foreign nationals, but government officials insist that the violence are acts of criminality instead of xenophobia.
There are an estimated 3.6 million migrants in South Africa that come from countries such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Malawi, Nigreria, eSwatini, previously known as Swaziland, India, Pakistan, Somalia and other countries.
For women such as Mlilo, the situation is so untenable that walking on the streets of Johannesburg can be equated to stepping into a lion’s den.
“What chance do I stand as a woman against groups of men armed to the teeth and who won’t hesitate to kill someone just because they were not born in South Africa? I work 15 hour shifts at the restaurant, knock off after eight almost everyday so I fear for my life but there is nothing I can do about it as a I have a family to take care of,” she added.
The reasons for the xenophobic attacks vary from accusations of foreigners taking over jobs from South Africans, peddling illegal drugs and foreigners accepting lower wages compared to what the locals would demand as salaries. The violence has so far claimed 10 lives and damage to property running into millions of dollars. — @RaymondJaravaza.