Xenophobic violence against foreign nationals in South Africa has left five people dead since last week, including a 14-year old boy and one man who was burned to death. Thousands have been fleeing the Rainbow Nation to seek refuge, fearing for their safety; some afraid for their lives.
The cause for the unrest is believed to have stemmed from comments made several weeks ago from Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, who said that foreigners should "go back to their countries." The King would deny the statement at first, but there was a recording of it that was played by the media in South Africa. Zwelithini then said his words were "misinterpreted."
Local residents are targeting immigrants from other African countries and accusing them of stealing their jobs. Many are traveling in large mobs and some have been armed with machetes. A group wielding axes and hammers was heard chanting "foreigners must leave."
Foreign-owned shops and business are being looted and destroyed as police have been dispersed and have tried to quell the violence with some using rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades.
The violence began in Durban, which is a coastal city located in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, and it has spread to other cities including Cleveland and Jeppestown, suburbs inside the central business district (CBD) of Johannesburg.
The capital city of the Gauteng province happens to be the home of GLORY light heavyweight Zack Mwekassa, who spoke to MMAMania early on Friday morning (April 17, 2015) about all that is happening in South Africa right now.
"I'm feeling a lot of pressure," said Mwekassa, who moved to Johannesburg after leaving his hometown of Goma in the war-torn Congo over ten years ago. "I've been in this country for more than 11 years. This is something I never really expected. I never really expected anything on this scale, never. It's worrying. It's really worrying.
"I've given part of my life to South Africa. I was 20 when I came here. I lived my whole life here. I've boxed here and had my first professional fights here. I gave up everything I had to come here. Slowly and surely you start to feeling like you actually don't really belong here, it makes me very sad."
The fact that Africans are attacking and killing other Africans, is something that is deeply troubling to the former WBF intercontinental cruiserweight champion.
"They killed a few guys there (Durban), some were burned to death, which is ridiculous, ludicrous for a democratic country like South Africa that has just come out of apartheid 20 years ago," Mwekassa said. "A country that fought for freedom of expression, for equality. Seeing black men attacking other black people from another country saddens me. It really breaks my heart. They're not attacking any Pakistani, any English, any Lebanese, or any other foreign national. Anyone that is light skinned is not being attacked, Chinese, nobody, they are just focusing on black people.
"Which is not xenophobia, it's Afrophobia. It's against Africans. It's very sad. South Africa during Apartheid, most of South Africans didn't go to Europe, they went to other African countries, the Congo, Tanzania, Mozambique. That is where they regrouped and then came back. And seeing now that people are people are being attacked, killed and burned to death because they are from a different country, it saddens my heart. Really, it hurts me."
The Johannesburg resident explained that Xenophobia is something all foreigners go through at some point. It's unavoidable, he said.
"I can tell you one thing, every immigrant in this country has somehow been a victim of xenophobic speech or xenophobic situation," Mwekassa said. "Every single one of us has been somehow--not necessarily physically attacked--but every single one has been looked at in a funny way or spoken to in a certain way or asked, 'when are you going to leave the country?' or something like that. Everybody has been through that."
Some of those people will be welcomed back to their former countries. Malawi has planned to repatriate at least 400 citizens since the attacks and is working with South Africa on temporary traveling papers due to passports being lost. According to a story on CNN.com Gift of the Givers Charity, over 8,500 people have fled to refugee centers or police stations to avoid the violence in South Africa.
On what Malawi is attempting to do, Mwekassa said, "I think it is a very wise way of saying, 'we see the bullshit happening there, we are going to save our people.'"
Mwekassa, 31, who last fought at GLORY 18 in November, losing in the contender-tournament final to Saulo Cavalari, has already been through a tremendous amount of hardship in his life. And seeing what is going on in South Africa right now is a stark reminder of the past life he managed to escape from.
"It's crazy. It's just crazy, my life. I've gone through so much. I know people say that, 'I've gone through so much. I've gone through a lot.' But, it's significant," said Mewkasa, who spent his Valentines Day feeding some of the homeless in Johannesburg. "I've been through wars in the Congo and I've been through various different types of different situations. The house was bombed when I was in the house. Three minutes after I left the house it was bombed and everyone died inside. I've been poisoned. I was there when the volcano erupted in the Congo (Mt. Nyiragongo).
"Coming here came the sense of--not peace--but a sense of stability on some level. I made a life in this country. I had opportunities to go live over seas, live in America or Europe and I made the choice to stay in Africa. Now I am reconsidering that. I'm thinking, 'what do I do next?' I'm not like everybody else. What do I do? What comes first, the love of Africa or my safety? It's making me consider a lot of things. Basically my future.
"I'm shocked as you can see. I don't feel safe. Going outside there could be a road block or something then something happens to me. I can't say the police could protect me. I don't think the police can protect me because these people said they aren't afraid of the police. The police may be from the same tribe and then why would they defend you?"
The No.5-ranked GLORY light heavyweight said "it's mayhem," and he is of the opinion that leadership should "stand up," and go on TV and say "stop the Xenophobia," and warn that there will be consequences for violence against immigrants. Mwekassa also believes if King Zwelithini "takes back" the words he said it would greatly aid in putting an end to the violence and bloodshed.
"Why doesn't the president address this?" Mwekassa asked about the most violent outbreak in the country since 2008, when over 60 people were killed.. "Why doesn't he condemn what the king said?"
The South African president, Jacob Zuma did make a statement in Parliament on Thursday evening (April 16, 2015).
"No amount of frustration or anger can ever justify the attacks on foreign nationals and the looting of their shops," Zuma said. "We condemn the violence in the strongest possible terms. The attacks violate all the values that South Africa embodies, especially the respect for human life, human rights, human dignity and ubuntu (human kindness). Our country stands firmly against all intolerance such as: racism, xenophobia, homophobia and sexism. We extend our condolences to all the families of all who have lost lives."
According to a story on Aljazeera.com on Thursday afternoon, South African journalist Khadiji Patel reported that Zwelithini has appealed for an end to the violence. Patel also mentioned that rioters were heard chanting "the King has spoken," during some of the violent outbreaks.
On Friday morning, KwaZulu-Natal Premier, Senzo Mchunu made an announcement in Durban--where thousands marched in the name of peace on Thursday evening-- that he spoke with Zwelithini about the xenophobic attacks. Mchunu said the King was misinterpreted and his statements were not a call for attacks on foreigners. Zweltini is going to meet with the Amakhosi on Monday in an attempt to stop the violence.
"We have met with his majesty twice,"Mchunu said. "He is extremely unhappy. He rejects the attacks."
Mwekassa said it is complicated on "many levels," and unfortunately he feels the hatred toward the foreigners is "permanent."
"People are angry and they are starting to blame the foreigners thinking they are the reason," he explained. "Thinking they are the cause. Don't forget the foreigners come to South Africa like many foreigners come to America. They know why they are there and they are willing to do any sort of job to make a living, to make money because they came for a better life. They came to make a living.
"Everybody can get to whatever they want to get to if they work hard for it. you can't be blaming the next person for doing good because he has been working hard to do good. If you are not willing to do the same to get reach that level, I don't think it makes sense at all. But this is exactly what's happening in South Africa."
Apartheid was abolished in South Africa in 1994, over 20 years ago. Mwekassa thinks what is going on now is just as bad and he gave an example of what several foreign shop owners are going through due to robbery and looting.
"This guy has probably worked for 20 years to get where he is and he got robbed because he's not from here," Mwekassa said. "That is just as bad as apartheid. They say that apartheid was bad. It's the same thing. I don't see any difference. It's actually worse because a black man burning a fellow black man in the name of what? It saddens my heart."
Now 2-1 in GLORY competition, Mwekassa said he was "disappointed" after his performance at GLORY 18, where he knocked out Brian Collette in the semi-finals before losing to Cavalari in the tournament final. The Congolese fighter plans on heading to Hemmers Gym in Holland in the beginning of May to sharpen his kickboxing game and work with some of the best fighters in the sport in preparation of his next fight, which has yet to be announced.
"I'm going to Holland to get away from all this mayhem and nonsense and focus," he said. "I'm in training right now. I'm in shape. Fitness wise I'm good. I've been doing various different things. Explosive stuff to get myself back to who I am. Mike Tyson-esque explosiveness. I've become more powerful I've become faster and that is scary. That is absolutely scary. I'm looking forward to the future and the my next event. I have no doubt in my mind within a couple of months, given the opportunity I will be the GLORY light heavyweight champion."
As for where he may end up if he leaves South Africa, Mwekassa said he doesn't yet know, but he knows he can't return to the Congo primarily because "they don't have the facilities for a professional athlete" and it would be "suicide" to his career.
"I have to find a another place where I can resume my career," he said. "I have to find a way to get out of here. As much as it's been great. As much as it's been a place that's rose me to where I am right now. As much as it's been the place to see the birth of my fighting career, I think we are coming to an end. I think we've come to an end. Maybe it's my time to go."
Even if the current state of affairs turns around for the better, Mwekassa used a French phrase to explain he has seen what the future holds for him.
"Les signes ne trompent pas," said Mwekassa, which means the "signs don't lie."
"I don't know why I should be the enemy of South Africans," he said. I'd like to be appreciated. I'd like to be accepted. I just feel that it's the end of my stay in South Africa."