Xenophobic attacks continue in Durban, following those in Gauteng in January. On Thursday at the South African Human Rights Commission interested parties discussed the problem and called on political leaders to unequivocally condemn the violence and introduce policies to promote cultural tolerance. By GREG NICOLSON.
Activist and writer Elinor Sisulu said she would be frank. With Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe on a state visit to South Africa, she described a situation where he might be meeting with President Jacob Zuma, sitting at a table. That table has shit on it. While it’s stinking up the room, neither acknowledge it. They stare out the window. “They don’t deal with the shit. They talk about things which have no relevance to people,” said Sisulu, speaking at a meeting on xenophobia at the offices of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).
As xenophobic attacks continued around Durban this week with hundreds of foreigners taking refuge at local police stations, groups representing the interests of foreigners gathered with the SAHRC in Johannesburg to discuss the marginalisation of migrants in South Africa. Many of the suggestions proposed to resolve the problem require state intervention and political leadership to change the way foreigners are viewed by South Africans.
Mkukuli White, national co-ordinator of the Protection of Foreign Business and Citizens (POFBC) group, established by South Africans to safeguard the rights of foreigners, said, “This is xenophobia finish and klaar.” He called on all political parties to condemn the attacks and for government to introduce programmes of cultural tolerance into the education system. A speaker from the floor suggested political parties such as the African National Congress (ANC) should be involved in these discussions so they can spread an anti-xenophobia message to their members.
“We cannot discriminate, not in this sort, not any more. People, let us work together for a better South Africa… Assist each other as human beings,” said chairman of the African Diaspora Forum (ADF), Marc Gbaffou. After the looting of foreigners’ stores started in Soweto in January, Gbaffou penned an open letter to Zuma. “Despite the escalation of violence over the past six years causing numerous deaths, the government has denied that there is xenophobia in South Africa, always questioning the nature of this violence and attributing it to ‘crime’ instead of recognising it for what it is – xenophobic violence. e.g. crime targeting foreigners. We are still to hear top members of government condemning the current xenophobic violence.” State leaders have condemned the attacks but denied they are motivated by xenophobia.
The ADF has also written to African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to request xenophobia is put on the agenda when the AU meets soon. Speakers were disappointed that while in South Africa, Mugabe, who is chairman of the African Union, didn’t tackle xenophobia. Instead he thanked South Africa for tolerating the migration of Zimbabweans.
Emmanuel Ugwu, chairman of the Nigerian Traders Union, said Nigerians in South Africa are unfairly blamed for crime and instead of letting police deal with problems foreigners are being killed in the streets. “Are we forgetting that those people are sons and brothers of human beings?” he asked. “You can’t get anything from attacking a foreigner,” he said, encouraging South Africans and migrants to work together and share skills. “We are tired of walking on the streets and being attacked as mkwerekwere.”
As examples of why xenophobia is so ludicrous, Ugwu and others cited the trade relations between South Africa and other African countries as well as the refuge offered to politicians who went into exile during the struggle. They also said the attacks put South Africans abroad at risk of retaliatory attacks.
But Sisulu, who was born in Zimbabwe and lived in exile with her husband, former National Assembly Speaker Max Sisulu, said many South Africans don’t see themselves as African, are not exposed to the cultures of other African countries, and do not benefit from the likes of MTN’s activities in Nigeria. Identity issues fuel othering and many locals already feel marginalised and isolated with South Africa’s inherited legacy of segregation. Sisulu called for leaders to be responsible with their comments and suggested there should be a funded institution dedicated to tackling xenophobia. She also encouraged systems to send locals across the continent to experience and celebrate the cultures of their neighbours, perhaps through studying.
Over the last two weeks foreigners have been attacked in Durban and fled to police stations and temporary refuge camps. The violence follows attacks on foreign-owned stores in Gauteng in January, but while the victims in Gauteng were often Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Somali, around Durban many of those attacked are reported to be from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi and Burundi. The KwaZulu-Natal government has called for peace after the attacks started, allegedly sparked by comments made by King Goodwill Zwelithini (and Zuma’s son Edward Zuma) against foreigners.
On Wednesday, police stopped an anti-xenophobia march in central Durban when locals, taxi drivers and unemployed youth, according to Business Day, threatened to attack them. The marchers, including foreigners’ associations and local shack dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo were turned away by the police, despite having a permit to march. Photos show police firing rubber bullets at the crowd and using a water canon, while the reports say locals yelled, “Foreigners are dogs.” DM
Photo: A child stands against a gate as refugees from xenophobic violence walk are interviewed by South African government officials at the Rand Airport camp near Germiston, east of Johannesburg, South Africa, 12 August 2008. EPA/JON HRUSA
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