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Act II of xenophobia waiting in the wings

Residents of Ramaphosa informal settlement in Reiger park near Benoni, east of Johannesburg, took to the streets waving sticks, knives and axes as they continue to hunt down beat and kill foreigners around the area. South Africa. May 2008
(Tebogo Letsie/IRIN)

A repeat of the xenophobic violence that swept through South Africa - killing at least 62 people and displacing 100,000 others - will return if the government continues to ignore its origins, says a report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

"Although initially condemned by actors across the political spectrum, the violence has rapidly faded from public debate. This is a mistake," warned the IOM report, Towards Tolerance, Law, and Dignity: Addressing Violence against Foreign Nationals in South Africa, researched by the Forced Migration Studies Programme at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand.

"What happened in May 2008 ... reflects deep tensions and dysfunctions in contemporary South African society and politics. If not addressed, the fractures and incentives that led to the 2008 killings could have grave consequences in the months and years ahead."

The scenes of hate that played out against foreign nationals in 2008 were "extraordinary" in their "intensity and scale", but not in their manner, as xenophobic violence has become a constant bed-fellow of post-apartheid South Africa, the report said.

The xenophobia indelibly stained South Africa's reputation as a country respecting the dignity of foreign nationals and was an acute embarrassment to the African National Congress (ANC) government, which relied on the hospitality of African states during its opposition against apartheid - often at great sacrifice in terms of lives and economic damage to the host country - to wage its armed struggle.

The most common prejudices among South Africans towards foreign nationals, the report said, was that foreigners "steal" women and jobs, access social benefits fraudulently, spread disease, and do not participate in community actions, such as non-delivery protests.

The new apartheid

The number of foreign nationals in South Africa, the economic power-house of the continent, has been estimated at about 5 million, primarily from neighbouring states, such as Mozambique, Lesotho and Zimbabwe, but also from as far afield as Somalia, Nigeria and Morocco. South Africa's population is estimated at about 48 million.

The report noted that "non-nationals are the functional equivalent of black South Africans two decades ago [during apartheid]. The primary difference is that the citizenry is now South Africa's black majority and the 'aliens' are – with notable and disturbing exceptions – people from beyond the country's political boundaries."

''Xenophobia, economic inequality, and a culture of violence are endemic to South Africa''

The African Union, in a cautionary note in the African Peer Review Mechanism's report on South Africa, said: "Xenophobia against other Africans is currently on the rise and must be nipped in the bud." The government rejected this assessment.

"Xenophobia, economic inequality, and a culture of violence are endemic to South Africa," the IOM report commented. "However, it is the micro-politics of township life that turn these divides into resources and translates them into violence."

Xenophobia flourished because of the "institutionalized" dehumanization of foreign nationals, who were afforded no protection or rights; the absence of political leadership and social delivery in poor communities that encourages "the emergence of parallel and self-serving leadership structures"; the paucity of conflict-resolution mechanisms; and the "culture of impunity with regard to public violence in general and xenophobic violence in particular."

The report cited the 2002 remarks by Billy Masetlha, a former Director-General of the Department of Home Affairs: "Approximately 90 percent of foreign persons who are in RSA [Republic of South Africa] with fraudulent documents, i.e., either citizenship or migration documents, are involved in other crimes as well.

"It is quicker to charge these criminals for their false documentation and then to deport them, than to pursue the long route in respect of the other crimes that are committed." The government has acknowledged that corruption among home affairs officials is rife.

A survey in 2006 found "pervasive xenophobic attitudes among police officers", with 87 percent of police believing that most undocumented migrants in Johannesburg were "involved in crime, and over 78 percent believed that foreigners caused a lot of crime, regardless of immigration status."

The study found that the "reluctance" of the police and local leaders to intervene in defence of the victims of xenophobia was because, in some cases,  "They supported the community's hostile attitudes towards foreign nationals; in others, they feared losing legitimacy and political positions if they were seen as defending unpopular groups."

A culture of violence

"Although it is inappropriate to speak of any culture in homogeneous or universalized terms, there can be little doubt that violence has gained a level of social acceptability rarely seen elsewhere in the world," the IOM commented.

''Somalis should remain in their country; they shouldn't come here to multiply and increase our population, and in future, we shall suffer. The more they come to South Africa to do business, the more the locals will continue killing them.''

Such an assertion, the report said, cannot be made without recognition of the country's recent history, an issue recognized by a Mozambican in South Africa, interviewed during the research.

"This thing is something we inherited from the Boers [Afrikaners] because when we came to South Africa we arrived into their hands," said the Mozambican, in Atteridgeville, a large township east of Pretoria.

"They encouraged the hatred of outsiders, and people would point out to them that at such a place there is a Shangani person [an ethnic group divided between South Africa and Mozambique] and they would come and deport you. So even the children grew up in that culture of discrimination where they could distinguish that this person is from this area and they are of a certain tribe."

The transference of these attitudes has been felt keenly by refugees in South Africa from the failed state of Somalia, who bore the main brunt of xenophobic attacks before May 2008.

In just over a month in August 2006, between 20 and 30 Somalis were killed in xenophobic attacks in Cape Town; in the Motherwell township of Port Elizabeth, in Eastern Cape Province in 2007, more than 100 Somali businesses were looted by a mob, in scenes the report described as "ethnic cleansing".

An interviewee in Motherwell told researchers: "The approach of the Somalis to come and just settle in our midst is a wrong one. Somalis should remain in their country; they shouldn't come here to multiply and increase our population, and in future, we shall suffer. The more they come to South Africa to do business, the more the locals will continue killing them."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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