Xenophobia plagues South Africa

| NewsAfrica | South Africa

The resurgence of anti-foreigner violence in election run-up sparks accusations that the government is fuelling xenophobia rather than solving it. By Newton Sibanda

Attacks targeting foreigners that began in South Africa almost a decade ago have resurfaced again, raising concerns about the failure of Africa’s economic giant to decisively deal with the scourge. This time the attacks were mainly concentrated around the port city of Durban in Kwazulu Natal. In a statement issued in March, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said at least six foreign nationals had been killed and more than 100 severely injured in the city over the course of a few days as mobs armed with metal rods and machetes broke into the homes of foreigners to chase them away and loot their belongings. 

One woman died when she fell through a roof while she was running away from protesters. Another two people died from gunshot wounds, allegedly inflicted by a shopkeeper. The chief targets were Malawians. Three hundred had to shelter at a police station near to where they lived in a squatter camp, forced to do so because the police failed to protect them when the attacks were underway, they said.   

About a hundred have since returned to their country and the Malawian consulate is being urged to fast track more applications for repatriations. Stanley Chilembwe, a Malawian community leader in Durban, said: “People are scared, they do not feel safe. Many have left, some even without the help of the embassy and those who have not left are waiting to leave.”    

Most migrants flock to South African in search of  work, and this is one of the underlying triggers of the violence. Despite being Africa’s industrial giant, South Africa’s unemployment rate is painfully high, officially standing at more than 27 per cent. Foreigners are seen as taking away the few available jobs from locals.  

In one incident on March 25, a group of South African truck drivers and other locals protesting against the employment of foreign truck drivers blocked the South Coast Road near Durban’s docks, pulled foreign drivers from their trucks, took the truck keys, and beat them up. Tinei Takawira, a driver, said he was stabbed as the police looked on without attempting to arrest the attackers or helping him get medical care.

A sinister message later put out on social media threatened that all foreigners would be attacked “mercilessly” unless they left the country by May 13. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa, acknowledged the harmful economic impact that could result from such attacks, promising that police would crack down on perpetrators. He said: “our economy and society benefit from our extensive trade and investment relations with partners on our continent”, many of whom were living in South Africa and “making important contributions to the development of our country”. 

He added: “African development depends on the increased movement of people, goods and services between different countries for all of us to benefit. We will not allow criminals to set back these processes.” 

Grim history

Xenophobic violence is nothing new in South Africa. Just months after the first multi-racial elections ushered Nelson Mandela into power in 1994, armed youth gangs in the Alexandra Township outside of Johannesburg  destroyed the homes and property of suspected undocumented migrants and marched the individuals down to the local police station where they demanded that the foreigners be forcibly and immediately removed. 

In 2000, seven people were brutally murdered in Cape Town, including a Kenyan, two Nigerians and two Angolans. In 2008, South Africa experienced its worst outbreak of violence against foreigners when more than 60 people died. Attacks began in Johannesburg before spreading to other urban areas across the country, mainly Durban and Cape Town, but also in countryside townships. The victims were predominantly Zimbabwean and Mozambican. Hundreds of people were injured and shops and houses burned and looted. 

 In 2015 two weeks of unrest in Johannesburg and Durban claimed seven lives as migrants were hunted down and attacked by gangs. Elias Twaibu barely escaped with his life when he was set upon by vigilantes in Durban. The 30-year-old returned home to Malawi, but continued hard times there drove him back to South Africa, where he became a victim of the March attacks. 

“Coming back to a country that stripped me of my dignity became my only option,” he told Durban’s Sunday Tribune. “I was so desperate and impoverished that I came back here. It’s a decision I truly regret making.”

Most South Africans are appalled by what has been happening, not only for the mindless brutality of the violence but also because many of its victims hail from countries whose support helped bring an end to apartheid. This was a point made by Ramaphosa in his condemnation of the attacks in April.  But at an African National Congress rally days earlier he promised a crackdown against undocumented migrants.  “Everybody just arrives in our townships and rural areas and set up businesses without licenses and permits. We are going to bring this to an end,” he stated. 

It is a widespread view that remarks such as these are to blame for fuelling xenophobia over the years. For instance, the 2015 attacks came after Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini called for the deportation of foreigners, saying it was unacceptable for locals to compete with people from other countries for the few economic opportunities available.

“When you walk in the street you cannot recognise a shop that you used to know because it has been taken over by foreigners, who then mess it up by hanging amanikiniki (rags),” he said at the time. “We’re requesting those who come from outside to please go back to their countries.”  

The influential monarch initially denied the remarks but when he was played a recording of them‚ he said the media “misinterpreted his words and distorts them to sell newspapers”. A huge furore followed. The Special Reference Group on Migration and Community Integration in KwaZulu Natal said it condemned “this kind of inflammatory speech” because of the likelihood that it could instigate violence. The investigation found the immediate trigger of the violence was the result of “deliberate efforts to drive away competition by foreign national-owned businesses,” after it was claimed a large local supermarket hired only foreigners. “These incidents together created a combustible environment within the context of prevalent poverty, a difficult international economic climate, increasing socioeconomic inequality and high levels of unemployment.”  

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), after its investigation, ruled that King Zwelithini’s comments on migrants, while  “hurtful and harmful” in that they reinforced stereotypes that potentially caused the marginalisation and the exclusion of foreign nationals‚ they did not amount to “hate speech”. At the same time its chair Lawrence Mushwana highlighted the status of Zwelithini as an “important public figure” whose “influence” was such that “none of the people who spoke to the commission during field research in the area were prepared to have their identities disclosed”.

Evidently, the row had little effect on restraining other politicians from making provocative statements. A few months later, in December 2016, Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba said illegal immigrants were responsible for a crime wave.  

As the ANC government continues to struggle in providing basic services, it frequently blames foreigners for over-burdening them. Last November, health minister Aaron Motsoaledi said that the health service was collapsing beneath “the weight that foreign nationals are bringing to the country”. He defended his comments, saying it had “nothing to do with xenophobia, it’s a reality”.

This prompted the African Diaspora Forum to write in protest to the Independent Electoral Commission. “Our feeling is definitely that there are a lot of politicians in government, either from the ANC or the [opposition] Democratic Alliance, who are using populist rhetoric, saying that migrants are responsible for crime and that they cause a shortage in housing and land and are overburdening the health system,” said chair Vusumuzi Sibanda, in an interview with allAfrica.com.   

As the country prepares for elections scheduled for May 8, Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch, called on political parties, politicians, community leaders, and individuals to refrain from statements that fuel divisions, saying that “the president should set a much better example”. 

Zambia’s High Commissioner to South Africa, Emmanuel Mwamba, also condemned certain public remarks by civic leaders, saying they should be avoided “especially during the sensitive period of elections due on May 8”.  

Plan with ‘no action’

Ironically, the Department of Justice posted the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, on 25 March – a day before the latest attacks and one that follows previous calls to action. Cynics are now wondering whether this plan will be any more successful than the others.  

The five-year plan, developed in a consultative process between the government and civil society, aims to raise public awareness about anti-racism and equality measures, improve access to justice and better protection for victims, and increase anti-discrimination efforts to help achieve greater equality and justice. But critics say the government threw it together without grasping why several past plans have failed. They assert that it fails to address a key challenge fuelling the problem – South Africa’s lack of accountability for xenophobic crimes.  

Virtually no one has been convicted for the previous spikes in xenophobic violence and civil rights groups say the South African government has failed to act decisively against it.

“Apart from its call for an end to attacks on foreign nationals, the South African government has done little to ensure the arrest and prosecution of those responsible,” said African Diaspora Forum chair Sibanda,. “Strong action is needed to show there are consequences for such acts before there is another round of violence against vulnerable foreign nationals.”  

Human Rights Watch agrees that this impunity for xenophobic crimes remains a key challenge that needs to be urgently addressed, saying the South African government should make clear what steps it is taking to guarantee the safety of non-nationals living in South Africa, particularly migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, and to protect their human rights and freedoms. “Re-integration of foreign nationals into communities without justice and accountability for past xenophobic attacks is a recipe for disaster,” said Mavhinga. “To deter those who attack foreign nationals, there is an urgent need for effective policing, arrests, and prosecutions.”

He added: “The National Action Plan is a welcome development indicating the South African government’s intent to fight xenophobia, racism, and all forms of discrimination and prejudice. Now it should fully implement that plan, and work to stem the dangerous tides of intolerance for good.” 

Loren Landau, an expert on migration,   and diversity at the University of the Witwatersrand,  told the news portal The Conversation that the plan “offers frail remedies to poorly diagnosed problems” relying on “perceptions and politics rather than facts” and that it “almost totally” overlooks xenophobia.

Meanwhile, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights special rapporteur for South Africa, Solomon Ayele Dersso, issued a statement on April 2 calling on the South African government to “ensure that the acts of xenophobic attacks are duly investigated and that persons who incited and perpetrated the attacks are brought to justice to end the lack of accountability that fuels xenophobic violence”.

Diplomats step in 

The minister of international relations and co-operation, Lindiwe Sisulu, insists that r xenophobic violence is of great concern to the government. “All criminal activities and looting of properties of foreign nationals will not be tolerated‚ and the police and other law-enforcement agencies must act without fear or favour,” she said.   

Sisulu, who held an urgent meeting with diplomats from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and police minister Bheki Cele in the wake of the attacks, said her government was working closely with the police and other law enforcement agencies to ensure that security is provided to people living in South Africa. She stressed that her government would also work closely with members of the diplomatic corps to ensure that regular updates were given concerning reports of alleged xenophobia. 

At the meeting held at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation in Pretoria, Sisulu noted that safety of people living in South Africa was a collective responsibility –  “as such, SADC member countries would be actively engaged to find a solution”. She assured that her government would guarantee that all citizens, including foreigners, were safe. Sisulu also said police would ensure that trucks and their trade routes were made safe.

The African ambassadors reported afterwards that they persuaded Sisulu and Cele to instruct Cele’s deputy, Bongani Mkongi, to recant a xenophobic statement about foreigners committing “economic sabotage” and threatening to overrun the country. The diplomats said that although he said this two years ago, the video of him making the remarks remained viral and he had never repudiated it.

Mkongi had warned that it was unacceptable that 80 per cent of a South African city – by which he meant Johannesburg’s rundown Hillbrow suburb – was “foreign national” and that if nothing was done about it, the whole country would become “80 per cent foreign national” and that the country’s president would eventually be a foreign national. He insisted that his remarks weren’t xenophobic, which appears to symbolise the whole government’s failure to recognise that xenophobia was behind many of the attacks on foreigners.

Sisulu said Ramaphosa and the ruling ANC both believed the problem was “pure criminality”. However, she also hinted that government might now take a wider view, after hearing the ambassadors who clearly believe the attacks are motivated by xenophobia – or “Afrophobia” as some call it, as most victims are African. “While the ANC may not want to admit it, there is a very real problem of xenophobia in South Africa,” said Gareth Newham, head of the Justice and Violence Prevention programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).   

Newham said attacks continued partly because South Africans know they can get away with it as the police rarely act against perpetrators. He said short-term interventions could include politicians and influential people – such as local musicians, actors, celebrities and the media – speaking out against xenophobia and promoting cohesion with African foreigners.  

Coupled with restrictive visa policies, this has discouraged many highly skilled African immigrants from settling in and travelling to South Africa – with significant economic implications.  

As Ramaphosa acknowledged, the continued xenophobic attacks are likely to have a negative impact on South Africa’s relations with other countries and hurt its economic interests. Noting that South Africa is not an island on its own, it is a country among countries, Sibanda said: “As long as attacks on migrants continue in South Africa, it means that the relationship with other countries and all other people will end with them looking at South Africa negatively. I think the truth of the matter is that it has had a very negative impact on South Africa as a country and will affect relations with neighbouring countries and other African states.”  

Stephanie Wolters is senior research fellow at ISS and says xenophobic eruptions over the years “have already done substantial damage to South Africa’s reputation in the rest of Africa”. Landau says the government must stop scapegoating foreigners for its own failure to deliver services and economic opportunities to its people.

A representative of Zambian nationals,  Deborah Nkokga, called on Ramaphosa to step in decisively. “I think we must tell the president, please stop this,” she stated.   “President Ramaphosa was on the news telling people that he doesn’t care who you are and where you come from, but he is going to sort out anyone who comes here illegally. “I even have a video of the president saying that. I am sure that because of his words the people just took the president’s words to do these [violent] things. The President was talking about ‘illegally’ but these people did not understand English.”

‘We worry for our future here ’ 

Nigerian Emmeka Uhanna, 47, a shop-keeper in South Africa’s industrial hub of Johannesburg, is one of the many African migrants who have set up home in the country.   

“I’ve been living in South Africa since 1997, my wife is South African and we have two children, aged 14 and 16,” he told the BBC in April following the renewed attacks on foreigners.   

“My wife is worried about what future our children will have if the xenophobic attacks become the norm. We don’t know how to explain the hatred against Nigerians to our families, to our children. This is the third round of attacks against foreigners; one was in 2008 where people were killed, again in 2015.  

“I now get calls from home, my family members want to know if we’re safe, they see the stories in the news. I do feel safe, I feel safe because I live in the suburbs away from where the unrest and violence has been happening but I don’t know if I could say that if I was living in a poorer area.  

“There are parts of this city that are no-man’s land, where the police have no control over what happens, where there are no consequences for wrong-doing, that is unfortunately where the xenophobia has thrived. 

“There is just lawlessness from all sides, by all nationalities and that sort of environment is a ticking time-bomb. Life is different in the suburbs but I do worry about my fellow Africans who become victims in these incidents, while they have nothing to do with crime.  

“I love this country, I consider it my home and it breaks my heart to see what is happening. The government needs to seriously address the concerns people are raising - both South Africans and foreigners. 

 “We came to South Africa for different reasons, some of us can never return to our countries, what happens then if you ruin your chances here? We don’t want to live in fear, I'm pleading with the government to address the problems that have come with migration, for the sake of our children.”        

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