South Africa

‘Xenophobic’ violence spreads, threatens chaos

By Khadija Patel 31 May 2013

As incidents of violence against foreign nationals continue to be reported, some question whether the label of xenophobia is too simple a diagnosis. By KHADIJA PATEL.

The “xenophobic” violence that has been stalking Gauteng has spread to the Eastern Cape and the Free State. A Somali national, who was attacked by protestors in Greenfield, Port Elizabeth, died in hospital on Thursday after a fatal stabbing in which he sustained wounds to the forehead, chest and stomach.

“It is alleged that a group of people went to the Somalian’s residence and there was a confrontation between them and the Somalian,” an Eastern Cape representative of the South African Police Services told Sapa.

Police believe the stabbing of the Somali man is unrelated to the surge of violence in northern Port Elizabeth in recent days that has stoked fears of an imminent repeat of the xenophobic violence of 2008.

While foreign-owned stores have come under attack in Port Elizabeth, police have hastened to point out that the violence in the city’s informal settlements was sparked off by police arresting three community leaders from Greenfields and Vastrap for the murders of two men accused of robbing a spaza shop. In apparent protest of these arrests, residents blockaded roads with rocks, poles, bushes, bricks, and burning tyres.

From there, violence spread to at least two other informal settlements.

Twenty-one people are said to have been arrested for public violence in northern Port Elizabeth on Thursday.

Foreigners in Port Elizabeth are, however, not encouraged. In some areas of the city, police assisted Somalian shop owners with packing their goods and escorted them to places of safety.

And it’s not just the Eastern Cape where foreigners have drawn the ire of local residents.

Also on Thursday, angry residents looted foreign-owned shops in Maokeng, Kroonstad – together with the violence directed against foreign nationals in Sebokeng and Diepsloot in the last week.

In March, more than 25 Somali-owned shops were looted in Mamelodi outside of Pretoria, while five Pakistani nationals were murdered in Mitchells Plain.

However, there are those who believe that xenophobia is too simple a label – and that the underlying causes of the attacks range from poverty to a culture of criminality.

On Wednesday, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe said in Parliament that attacks against foreigners in Diepsloot this week were criminal acts, plain and simple, and should not necessarily be branded xenophobic in nature.

“I think it’s a matter of grave concern. The criminal activities that are perpetuated by some South Africans are not a reflection of xenophobic attacks against foreigners,” he said.

He is not alone believing that the violence cannot be explained by xenophobia alone.

Public policy analyst and editor of ZApreneur, Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen, said the incidence of violence against foreigners in South Africa pointed to a systemic failure of the South African economy that must be regarded similarly to service delivery protests.

“The violence [against foreigners] should be looked at through the prism of violent protests in poor communities,” he said.

Similarly, commentator Nomalanga Mkhize mused on Twitter this week, “In Russia, bread riots led to a revolution, here they lead to ‘xenophobia’.”

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) Secretary-General Zwelinzima Vavi, speaking at a conference on xenophobia, social cohesion and violence at Wits University, organised by the African Centre for Migration and Society earlier this month, noted that inequality, poverty and unemployment were the underlying causes of xenophobia in South Africa.

“We must link these outrageous acts to the underlying social crisis and turn people’s anger against their real enemy [which is] the capitalist system of production, distribution and exchange,” he said.

The ANC believes that no matter the cause of the violence, it cannot be condoned.

“Regardless of what the cause of these violent protests may be, the African National Congress condemns any attacks on members of society, irrespective of nationality,” ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu said in a statement on Thursday.

According to statistics from the African Centre for Migration and Society in 2013, before the current spike in violence, there were at least three incidents of xenophobic violence per week countrywide.

“The basic issue behind the violence is the question of the lack of opportunity to do a whole range of things, including starting a small business,” Hassen said.

“It is about people being able to make their way through the system.”

He notes as well that many of the analyses, made in 2008 after the wave of xenophobic violence that shocked the world, are still relevant.

Back then, Hassen noted during a presentation following the xenophobic violence that a failure to address the lack of opportunity available for South Africa’s poorest would ultimately lead to further unrest.

“Unless [South Africa becomes a nation of opportunity], we can expect a recurrence of xenophobic attacks, and also higher levels of violent service delivery protest,” he said.

The warnings, then, have always been there. The triggers of further violence have become subverted beneath the political spectacle of the day, but as we note the violence spreading and the protests increasing, are we actually listening to what the protestors are saying? DM

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Photo: A Rwandan asylum seeker queues to get his documents renewed outside a Department of Home Affairs reception centre in Cape Town May 29, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings


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