By Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh

May marks five years since the xenophobic attacks that shocked the nation. But what has happened since then? Are we better prepared to deal with criminality of that scale than we were five years ago? The simple answer is no.

South Africa — in its 19 year democratic history — had never before seen the scale and intensity of the 2008 xenophobic violence and displacement. It was because of this that the horror of the displacement caused us to pay attention. After initial attacks in the townships of Alexandra, Diepsloot and Tembisa during the first five days of the attacks, security forces were unable to prevent the spread of violence or halt the mushrooming attacks, loss of life and property. By the end more than 60 people had been killed in the violence.

After the South African Human Rights Commission’s investigation into the violence, a number of recommendations were made to government departments with the aim of developing mechanisms to reduce and prevent the kind of violence and attitudes that were seen during the 2008 attacks. Many of these recommendations have still not been operationalised. For example, a recommendation to the justice department to develop hate crimes legislation and support measures to institute it has been in the pipeline for many years without resolution.

The police — to an extent — have made some progress in working towards these recommendations. The visible policing unit has actively managed to quell threats and actual incidents of violence. These efforts are mainly focused in Gauteng and urban centres while the Eastern Cape, Free State and Limpopo continue to be areas in dire need of police intervention to prevent xenophobic attacks. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ xenophobia hotline, an average of 238 incidents a month are reported to the police. SAPS have displayed a success rate of 50% in preventing death, injury and loss of property through early intervention efforts.

In April this year alone, police were called in on numerous occasions to intervene and offer protection in xenophobic incidents. These are just a few of the reported cases in and around Pretoria:

April 24 in Soshanguve: SAPS members successfully assisted Somali shop keepers in resisting an attack and protected the stock in their shops;

April 20 in Garankuwa: SAPS were slow to respond and despite repeated calls for assistance from affected foreign nationals, police only arrived after more than half their stock was looted and one of the victims had been shot and attacked;

April 13 in Mamelodi East: A Somali man was shot in a seemingly targeted attack on foreign-owned shops;

April 1 in Delmas extension 3:
Ten refugee shops were looted. Despite calls for police assistance and gun shots being fired by unknown people, police were absent and unable to provide protection;

April 10 in Sasolburg: Following an early warning notification, SAPS were present during and after a march organised by the ANC Youth League. Crowds of up to 3 000 people were managed by the police and order was successfully maintained. Refugees were warned and had closed their shops and removed their stock in anticipation of possible looting and attacks.

These kinds of incidents have become “normal” and very rarely attract any media attention. As a result it appears as if the situation is under control but nothing could be further from the truth. Similar incidents are reported on a daily basis and while segments of the police are working to protect foreign nationals who may be targets of xenophobic hatred, there are also officers who act unlawfully and for their own financial gain as was noted in the recent arrest of a woman who was impersonating an officer in Johannesburg and allegedly soliciting money from foreigners. In worst-case scenarios, scenes of a Mozambican taxi driver being dragged behind a police bakkie show just how fragile this protection may be.

SAPS, however, cannot be the sole government department to take responsibility for combating xenophobia. The National Prosecution Agency and justice department have not publicised their statistics on investigations and prosecutions arising from xenophobia-related crimes. This would be a strong deterrent to any groups planning raids and attacks on foreign nationals.

We are not seeing strong enough sanctions and penalties for those perpetrating criminality against foreigners. Neither the government, nor the ruling party have taken the lead on tackling xenophobia. Instead the ANC has tabled policy limiting the rights of foreigners to work and home affairs is making plans to move refugee processing to border regions away from urban centres thereby creating the danger of shanty towns developing along our borders while still offering little to combat xenophobic attitudes within our communities.

Where this leaves us is that groups like the Greater Gauteng Business Forum and their ilk perceive their strategies to evict foreigners from local communities as being quite successful. This weak response to policing and targeting of hate crimes allows criminality to fester and offers little protection to victims of hate crimes. The “go home or die here” attitude should have no place in this country. This was never the intention of our Constitution and has the effect of watering down our respect for human dignity and our democracy.

Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh heads LHR’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme.


  • 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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