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.


  • Lawyers for Human Rights is an independent human rights organisation with a 37-year track record of human rights activism and public interest litigation in South Africa. LHR uses the law as a positive instrument for change and to deepen the democratisation of South African society. To this end, it provides free legal services to vulnerable, marginalised and indigent individuals and communities, both non-national and South African, who are victims of unlawful infringements of their constitutional rights. LHR's work is instrumental through its key programmes including the Land and Housing Unit, the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme, the Environmental Rights Project, Strategic Litigation Unit and Security of Farm Workers Project.


Lawyers for Human Rights

Lawyers for Human Rights is an independent human rights organisation with a 37-year track record of human rights activism and public interest litigation in South Africa. LHR uses the law as a positive...

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