Photographing evil in South Africa's townships
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - I only realised how serious the attacks were when I saw a photograph of a man being burnt alive in a township east of Johannesburg.
Having worked as a photographer in South Africa for more than 10 years, I was no stranger to violence: I had seen angry people chanting slogans, blocking roads and destroying property.
But burning a man alive was evil and barbaric, a flashback to the worst violence under apartheid when opponents of the white minority government were shot and tortured by police and informers were "necklaced" with burning tyres.
That photograph of the burnt man was not mine, but in the following days I came face-to-face with this new brutality as attacks on immigrants spread across Johannesburg and to other cities.
In one informal settlement, I found a badly beaten man who had narrowly escaped being burnt. He was lying a few steps from a pile of partly burnt plastic and paper.
Residents said a mob tried to burn him but ran away when some of the locals approached.
In the worst violence since the end of apartheid 14 years ago, angry people stabbed, clubbed and burnt migrants from other parts of Africa, accusing them of taking jobs and fuelling South Africa's notoriously high levels of crime.
At least 50 African migrants were killed and up to 100,000 were forced to flee their homes. Thousands of immigrants from Mozambique and crisis-torn Zimbabwe returned home.
The outbreak started on May 11 in Johannesburg's Alexandra township -- across the city from Soweto where I was born -- before spreading through shantytowns and townships around the financial and industrial capital.
Then, the attacks spread down to Cape Town and east to the port city of Durban.
The explosion of deadly anger dealt a blow to the international image of a country that calls itself the "Rainbow Nation", making investors wonder just how stable Africa's biggest economy really was.
It surprised and disappointed me.
On May 18, I received a call from a colleague who told me foreigners were being chased and beaten in central Johannesburg.
This was just a day after I had returned from assignment in Malawi, where people are so humble, warm and happy to have a visitor from another country.
I grabbed my cameras and went to town.
When I arrived, I was amazed by the number of police who were driving around, searching and arresting suspects.
I thought the trouble would pass, but I was wrong.
Later that day, after I had finished filing my pictures, I was shocked to see photos taken from other areas, including that picture of a man being burnt alive.
I decided to go to Reiger Park, an informal settlement east of Johannesburg, and the place where the man was burnt.
When I got there, I saw hundreds of young men with sticks, knives, pangas (machetes) and spears, angrily shouting that they wanted all the foreigners out of South Africa.
I found the injured man who had nearly been burnt in front of a shack.
I kept shooting pictures but then some people from the mob told us they didn't want the media there. This happens most of the time when you try to take photographs in tense situations in South Africa. But this time, it looked serious.
They came up to us, threatening us and wielding their weapons. We could see the anger in their eyes.
We stopped taking pictures and only returned when we thought it was safe, sometimes going back in with the police.
But it was a difficult situation. The mob threw stones at the photographers and the police occasionally fired shots to disperse the crowd.
I've covered violence before but this was bad. I was disappointed that my countrymen had turned against their brothers and sisters from countries that had helped us during apartheid.
South Africa's government has been criticised for its slow reaction to the violence and for not addressing the poverty that is widely blamed for the bloodshed.
Last Sunday, President Thabo Mbeki called the wave of attacks a "disgrace", and said the government would act firmly to curb the bloodshed.
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