Lawyers for Human Rights
Lawyers for Human Rights

Denying it’s xenophobia isn’t helping

By David Cote

The recent attacks against foreign nationals, particularly those operating shops in townships and informal settlements, have sent shivers down the spines of many in South Africa and across the continent. It has been five years since coordinated attacks exploded across the country and led to the deaths of 64 people and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more. We remember visiting police station after police station and seeing thousands of people scared for their lives. Although the violence itself only lasted for a few weeks, the lingering fear has never quite gone away.

This is partly due to the fact that these attacks never really ended. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has released statistics showing that at least three incidents per week were reported in 2012. Those not killed have been severely injured. There is no way of determining just how much has been lost in business and property after attacks in Sasolburg, Orange Farm, Diepsloot, Booysens Park and Sebokeng.

The other reason is that nothing has really been done to end the attacks or to start the healing process. Although the police response has improved since 2008, scenes of a Mozambican taxi driver being dragged behind a police bakkie and the selective closure of foreign-owned shops by the police in Limpopo threaten to send us back to square one. Daily reports of police officers tearing up refugee papers on the street and making cash demands from shop owners during searches of their businesses lend to the perception that there is no protection for foreigners against violence and persecution.

Even more disturbing is the government’s denial of the real threat of xenophobia. Hate crime legislation which would prioritise such crimes has been languishing in committees for years. This would go a long way in showing government’s commitment to taking a stand against attacks on foreigners. Unfortunately, the government has instead taken the view that this is not xenophobia, but just ordinary crime. What use will hate crime legislation be when government repeats its views that this is not xenophobia but run-of-the-mill crime?

Denying that an irrational fear and loathing of foreign nationals who eat differently, speak differently, dress differently and do business differently, plays a major role in ignoring the problem. Instead of seeking ways to foster healing and reconciliation in South Africa’s diverse communities, leaders have rather sought to blame it on a mystical criminal element. Again, this harks back to talk about the “third force” spreading crime against foreigners in 2008 (if I recall, that “third force” was rather busy in 2008). This fear is proven irrational through a lack of substantial facts to back these claims. According to national statistics, foreign nationals commit no more crime than their South African counterparts. It is also worth mentioning that, according to StatsSA, less than 5% of all people in South Africa at the moment are foreign nationals.

It is also not worth denying that a conflict over scarce resources may also be a source of violence. In most communities, foreign shop-owners go through their day with their South African neighbours without any hassle. In 2008, it was particularly poignant seeing images of South African community members coming to the aid and support of their neighbours. No doubt this spirit of ubuntu plays an important role in keeping neighbours safe — even today. But the vulnerability of foreign nationals is exposed in the anger at almost every service delivery protest. It is almost part and parcel of a service delivery protest that foreign-owned shops will be targeted and looted.

However, simply thinking that this is “poor-on-poor” violence is not sustained by facts. In a recent report by the Southern African Migration Project, summarised in a recent article by Jonathan Crush, research shows that in 2010, trends had changed and higher income South Africans were the most xenophobic and unwelcoming of foreign nationals in the country. This is an indication that xenophobia shares a place in the wide spectrum of South African society.

Foreign nationals are particularly vulnerable in South Africa. The refugee and asylum protection system has all but collapsed under the disjointed and uncoordinated policy direction taken by the department of home affairs. Corruption, bad management and an unclear policy has taken its toll on an already overburdened system. The closure of half of the country’s refugee reception offices in the past two years has created untold burdens on law-abiding refugees and asylum-seekers who are unable to access documentation or who wait years for a determination to be made on their claims. The immigration system does not fare much better and gives little opportunity to migrants who have worked for generations on farms, mines and construction sites. Even highly-qualified foreigners who are willing to bring their skills and abilities into our markets are prevented from doing so due to cumbersome bureaucracy and inexplicable delays. Taken as a whole, foreigners feel unwanted by the system.

These are eerily similar systemic problems to the institutionalised racism and gender inequality that permeated our society prior to our modern era of constitutionalism and the rule of law. While we still have a long way to go in addressing these problems, the fact that we call it racism and not “separate development” and gender violence instead of “family values” means that we can now have a rational conversation about these problems.

We need a clear stance from government and community leaders that there is a problem with xenophobia in South Africa. By ignoring the xenophobic elements and only focusing on the crime and violence, we will never be able to address the root causes. But in addressing such root causes, we must ensure that all of South African society, from the rich to the poor, from civil society to government, must take part in a national healing. If we fail to recognise that xenophobia remains a problem, we will never be able to mobilise the same energy that has been put into eliminating racism and gender inequality.

David Cote runs the Strategic Litigation Unit at Lawyers for Human Rights.

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    • realistic

      Lets be honest. Its not fear – its anger fuelled by the fact that many are not refugees – they are illegals who cannot be held to account for anything because we have no records for them. We all know that many are quite involved in serious and violent crime – against us, black and white. These criminals do not subscribe to any of the human rights that are legislated in South Africa. They will do whatever it takes to make a buck, be it off drugs , fraud or human trafficking. That is what South Africans are furious about. Where people enter the country legally and through the correct channels, or as legitimate refugees (the gov. get compensation) there are no complaints. But when they are illegal, the public pays and the public suffers. There is a perception amongst all race groups in South Africa that the illegals are a huge drain on our economy – money and resources funded by the taxpaying public who him/herself are often unable to access the same resources or benefits. The situation is quite ludicrous, and instead of government exercising more stringent border control they blame the public for being xenophobic. It is suggested that in excess of one-fifth of our population is illegal – no one really knows. If that doesn’t concern you, then you are just plain stupid. South Africans feel as if their own country is doing more for foreigners that it is doing fo them That is why there is xenophobia.

    • Stephen Browne

      @realistic – is that an excuse to trash their shops and homes? We have high numbers of (local) criminals in certain areas, does this give me the right to fire all my employees from the same areas? No, it makes me worry for their safety. I am making a point of voting for the party I feel is best equipped to solve the problem, and I’d hazard this might be a starting point for the disillusioned amongst us.

    • realistic

      Of course it doesn’t give anyone the right to trash someone’s home or their business, or worse still, harm them in any way. And of course there are crimiinal elements who are exploiting the situation. But there is a vast majority who are not criminals, who mind their own business, and who are nevertheless deeply xenophobic. The author is correct – we think that by denying it, it will somehow seem less real and less ugly.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Calling everything that happens ‘xenophobia’ isn’t helping either. Our cops are not that fussy over who they brutalise and a Somalian shooting two Zimbabweans could only really be called ‘xenophobia’ if he did it in Somalia.

      The problem with much of this is the sheer numbers of people who flock in through our non existent borders. I don’t think anyone has a problem with a person from anywhere in the world coming to work in SA but you can’t work in SA if you are not here legally. You therefore have to resort to crime. Our judicial system is a joke so the people eventually get desperate enough to take matters into their own hands. The real problems start when the pack instinct takes over and things escalate to murder and mass destruction. It happens all over the world.

    • African

      If South African government accept asylees then they have a duty to protect them. Somalis own hundreds of businesses in Kenya and live side by side with Kenyans without issues. Those African nationals should leave South Africa, the country has spoken. Shame on you South Africa, remember Apartheid when Africa was there for you?

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      @ African

      Kenya put Somali refugees in refugee camps, they did not compete with locals for jobs and health and education services, or become a burden on the state since the UN has to pay for officially recognised refugees. BUT Kenya also put those camps outside the cities and included land that Somalis could farm to feed themselves. Somalis produced a surplus and could also sell to locals which made them very popular and a drain on no-one.

    • Alois

      Mr. Cole, may I respectfully point out that “it’s” is a contraction of “it is”? So what you were aiming at is the adjective “its.” You do have proofreaders, don’t you? Spellcheck is not helpful in such syntactical errors.

    • Alois

      Very well, then, I do so proofread my post with this correction. “Mr. Cote.” Thank you.

    • LINE

      For those wanting more insight into the issue have a look at this 5 minute multimedia: (also winner of this years World Press Photo Award, multimedia online short category).
      The discussion often centres around legitimate refugees and illegal immigrants – the reality is that there is a fine line that divides the two, and it is often very blurred. Corruption at Home Affairs and the closing of refugee centres has made the barriers to entry through legal channels virtually impossible. In their desperation many sacrifice their rights, their health and their core human values to survive.

    • liesl

      I agree that the presence of xenophobia in SA is fuelled by the common perception that our government is taking better care of foreigners than its own people. It is important to note the difference between persons with actual refugee claims and those who abuse the asylum system in SA to commit crime. On this level it is also the responsibility of government (not refugees) to ensure that the asylum system is efficient so that opportunists are excluded from the rights that SA gives real refugees. At the moment refugees are suffering for the failure of government to run an efficient asylum system.