07/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Refugees: South Africa's New Apartheid

A year ago mobs rampaged through South African townships beating and in some cases killing the African immigrants living amongst them. Thousands who came to South Africa seeking the peace, freedom and economic opportunities lacking in their own often conflict-ravaged countries were forced to seek shelter from vicious attacks by locals.

One night during the wave of xenophobia that engulfed the country I was at a church where hundreds of refugees were being temporarily housed. There was a knock on the door; two men stood stunned, shell-shocked, explaining their house had just been burnt down.

The church had run out of space so we took them to another one in on the other side of the city. On the way, they told us their story.

They had been living in Cape Town for about five years. A few days before, they were on their way from their car-washing job to the railway station when a few police officers spotted them. They searched them up against a wall before tearing up their immigration papers, arresting them and throwing them into a police van.

They spent the weekend incarcerated; then on Monday, at the Department of Home Affairs, a kindly clerk recognized them, provided them with new papers and ensured they were released.

The next day their house was attacked. Looters were going from house to house, asking the nationality of the residents inside. If there were immigrants they entered and ransacked the place, taking everything of value. Then they called the mobs to come and burn the place down. When they went to the police station and reported what had happened, the drunk police officers on duty just laughed at them.

The day before, a friend of theirs had elicited the same reaction. Stuck in an overcrowded third-class train carriage, people inside started asking him the meaning for isiXhosa words (isiXhosa is the Cape's local indigenous language). When he was unable to answer, they began beating him. As the train was approaching a bridge, the passengers tried to open the door of the carriage to throw him out. Fortunately the double doors refused to budge.

Badly beaten, the friend got out at the nearest station. When he explained what had just had happened to the Xhosa security guards, they laughed at him. He went then went to the police where his story also invoked much mirth. "You're a man -- you should be able to defend yourself," they told him between bouts of laughter.

That was one year ago. The senseless anarchy that rocked South Africa may have calmed but, tragically, the hatred lingers and the tensions remain. Perceived -- all too often unfairly -- as job-steelers, criminals and competitors for scarce resources, immigrants are sub-humans in the eyes of certain South Africans: fair game for vilification, abuse and persecution.

On a daily basis, immigrants are being subjected to brutal discrimination -- apartheid by any other name. And this is not merely manifested in the alienation and occasional bouts of intimidation they can be subjected to by the communities they live in. Tragically ironic in a country that experienced apartheid, xenophobia is also exhibited in institutionalized repression.

While the South African government has relaxed its controls on its border with Zimbabwe, harsh treatment is meted out to the almost three million Zimbabweans who have fled oppression and economic collapse. Desperately hoping for respite from the horrors of their homeland, they instead face anything from arrests and assault by the police to Byzantine, corrupt and chaotic asylum processing facilities. Those that have no papers are often denied access to healthcare and safe shelter.

Both government and the country at large must stop the discrimination and needless persecution of refugees and immigrants. As a nation which inspired the world with its remarkable transition from prejudice to peace, South Africa is obligated to.

Watch the video from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) on the plight of Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa here: