After a wave of violent attacks on foreigners swept South Africa in May 2008, leaving 63 dead and tens of thousands displaced, both government and civil society pledged ‘never again’. Yet measures implemented in the past four years have failed to defuse continuing resentment of foreigners or to ensure justice for victims of xenophobic violence.
According to researchers from the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, there is an increased awareness of xenophobia as a social problem, but there has been little concrete programming on the ground, and xenophobic incidents continue.
“Xenophobic violence didn’t begin or end in 2008,” said Jean-Pierre Misago, an ACMS researcher and one of the presenters at a session on access to justice for non-nationals at the South African Human Rights Commission on 16 October. “In 2012, we are seeing an increase in these incidents, with 50 in September alone.”
Misago and several other presenters suggested that part of the problem was the relative impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of crimes against foreigners. Sergio Calle-Norena, deputy regional representative for the UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR), pointed out that among the 63 murders of foreigners committed in May 2008, only one perpetrator was punished by the justice system. Hate crimes legislation, which could make it easier to mete out stiff penalties for racist attacks, has been in the works for several years, as has a national action plan to address racism.
Much of the xenophobic violence that continues to occur in South Africa is directed at foreign nationals running small grocery stores known as ‘spaza’ shops in townships and informal settlements. The majority of these shops are run by refugees and asylum-seekers from Somalia. Their lack of access to justice is the focus of a new report by Roni Amit, another ACMS researcher.
As well as experiencing higher rates of robberies than their South African counterparts, Somali traders are the targets of looting, intimidation, arson and murder - crimes often orchestrated by competing South African traders.
Due to their relative isolation from the communities they live and work in, Somali traders are excluded from informal justice mechanisms that locals depend on.
“Forced to rely almost exclusively on the formal institutions of justice, Somali traders are hampered by a lack of faith in the police and courts that is exacerbated by language barriers and a lack of understanding of how the justice system works,” writes Amit.
The resulting low conviction rates for crimes against Somali traders have added to the perception that they are easy targets, increasing their vulnerability.
Amit recommends the South African Police Service (SAPS) take more action to protect Somali shops from looting and intimidation - crimes that rarely result in arrests - and fairer enforcement of trading regulations. The enforcement of such regulations is now often used selectively against foreign traders.
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Somali community organizations also have a role to play by providing their members with information about the workings of the criminal justice system and encouraging them to participate more in community affairs.
Incidents of xenophobic violence tend to be concentrated in areas characterized not only by high levels of poverty and lack of services but also by incompetent community leadership that fails to detect or act on the warning signs. At the session, Misago presented the Estimated Violence Risk Index, a new tool that combines census data with records of xenophobic incidents to predict future hot spots. Its intended users - SAPS, municipalities and disaster management officials - can use its 63-percent-accurate predictions to develop and implement targeted interventions.
A third ACMS report presented by Iriann Freemantle gives tools and practical advice on how to plan and implement interventions to promote greater social cohesion in communities where xenophobic violence takes place. The researchers of this report found that a one-size-fits-all approach for communities facing very different challenges did not work, but that a definition of what social cohesion means and a set of indicators for measuring it were needed.
The authors define social cohesion as “a condition in which tensions and conflicts are dealt with in a manner that does not result in open violence, paralyzing chronic tensions or extreme marginalization among groups of residents in a specific area”. Achieving this, they say, depends on inclusion and tolerance of difference, effective local and state institutions, positive relationships, civic engagement and participation, the absence of violence and all groups in a community receiving “fair life chances”.
They recommend asking key questions such as: What were the triggers of xenophobic violence in a specific location? What are the social divisions in that area? And what type of intervention would be most appropriate?
Freemantle admitted that the researchers had found few examples of successful social cohesion initiatives, but insisted that much more could be done, even in communities characterized by high levels of poverty, lack of services and deep mistrust of outsiders.
“It’s not poverty per se that causes xenophobic violence, otherwise we’d see it everywhere,” she said. “It has a lot to do with human agency, so there are things we can do.”