South Africa

Xenophobia: Report debunks misconceptions about resentment of foreigners

By Cyril Madlala 5 April 2016

A probe into the causes of the xenophobic attacks that swept through KwaZulu-Natal last year finds as unfounded several key allegations often made by locals against foreigners as a basis for resentment across South Africa. By CYRIL MADLALA.

A report by a Special Reference Group on Migration and Community Integration in KwaZulu-Natal was appointed by Premier Senzo Mchunu to investigate the causes and consequences of the March-May 2015 violent attacks against foreign nationals in the province.

Seven people died while many were injured, property was destroyed and thousands of foreigners were displaced in various parts of KwaZulu-Natal.

Former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Judge Navi Pillay, chaired the seven-member panel that released its report on Tuesday 5 April 2016, debunking misconceptions about some of the reasons foreign national business operators are subjected to violent attacks.

Noting the changing dynamics of the township market, the report says that previously locals dominated the spaza and tuck shop environment. However, the advent of national supermarkets and malls in these areas has impacted negatively on the viability of these small businesses.

This has contributed to increased competition and tension with foreign nationals in the small local business.

The report also notes:

Many South Africans operating in the tuck shop and spaza sector made allegations that businesses owned by foreign nationals thrive due to unfair advantages, and that these improprieties directly undermine the viability of locally-owned businesses.”

The allegations include that:

  • Such businesses are not registered and do not pay taxes;
  • Foreign nationals sell products at prices below those that local business owners conclude are feasible and are therefore receiving illegal support;
  • Foreign nationals receive unfair privileges from wholesale companies due to shared religious beliefs;
  • Foreign nationals intentionally open spaza shops within close proximity to locally-owned businesses, thereby capturing some of the locals’ markets;
  • Foreign-owned businesses sell fake goods or non-South African products;
  • Foreign businesses owners operate their shops for nearly 24 hours every day and even have workers sleeping there.

The report found that in most cases foreigners had in fact taken over existing shops from locals who had either abandoned their businesses altogether or rented them out “and earned higher incomes than they did while operating the shops”.

In terms of foreign nationals offering cheaper prices compared with local business owners selling the same goods, the foreign national communities reflected upon their bulk-buying practices, which enabled them to receive discount prices on purchasing products.

Foreign national business owners and large wholesale companies identified that foreign nationals are more likely to sell their goods at lower profit margins compared with local business owners: this practice was said to enable foreign national businesses to sell their goods at lower prices and move larger quantities on a more consistent basis.”

On perceptions that foreign nationals who own businesses do not pay taxes, the report says the allegations are compounded by perceptions that the South African government “provided enabling conditions for foreign nationals to cheat the system as foreigners are allowed to sell goods locally that are bought under the pretext that they will be exported”.

The judge and her panel noted that members of foreign national communities did acknowledge that some of their businesses did not comply with the law but were prepared to rectify this, while adding that they did pay Value-Added Tax like everybody else.

With respect to the claim that foreign nationals receive unfair benefits due to shared religious beliefs with the owners of wholesalers, members of the Somali community noted that this allegation could not be true as they remarked that they participated in the collective pricing structures with members of KZN’s Ethiopian communities, who are overwhelmingly Christian but nonetheless equal participants.”

It was pointed out to the panel that the collective price scheme was also open to South African traders.

The investigation could not independently verify or refute allegations that foreign shop owners sold fake goods.

Interestingly, “many local customers indicated their preference to patronise shops owned by foreign nationals because they sell their products at cheaper rates and opened their shops for longer periods of time each day. On the other hand, local South Africans who are seen to support foreign national businesses have also found themselves victim to violent threats and attacks, the report states.

This example highlighted that it was not only foreign nationals who suffered during the crisis, but also that many local South Africans suffered, especially those who were seen to be supporting foreign national businesses.”

The key findings of the investigation are:

  • The Special Reference Group found that the immediate cause of the violent attacks was the result of deliberate efforts to drive away competition by foreign national-owned businesses, and the trigger of the outbreak was perceptions of what occurred at KwaJeena’s Supermarket, Isipingo, at the end of March 2015 which were later found by a government investigation to be without substance. The supermarket was accused of replacing locals with foreign nationals.
  • These incidents together created a highly combustible environment within the context of prevalent poverty, a difficult international economic climate, increasing socio-economic inequality and high levels of unemployment.
  • The tensions were most evident in the informal trading sector, where many of the perceptions of foreign national traders, although largely unfounded, contributed to heightened tensions.
  • Although the violence only impacted directly on a few areas in the province, the vast majority of people who fled their homes did so out of fear: this highlighted the pervasive trauma and mistrust in various communities.
  • The atmosphere of fear was amplified by the spread of unfounded rumours, misinformation, fake videos and images that exaggerated the violent outbreaks, and inflammatory public statements by individuals in leadership positions.
  • The Special Reference Group also found that challenges in the implementation of immigration-related policies, as well as shortcomings in the policing, justice and intelligence agencies, contributed to long-term vulnerabilities and tensions between locals and foreign nationals.
  • The violence against foreign nationals also invigorated a number of KZN local communities to respond positively and support the displaced and affected.

Judge Pillay said they could not verify a connection between a speech by King Goodwill Zwelithini in Pongola in March last year and subsequent acts of violence. They could also not secure a meeting with him to clarify matters.

The Special Reference Group has proposed that government addresses gaps in the implementation of immigration-based policies and promotes more collaborative and trading practices in the informal sector.

It also calls for the creation of local forums to promote cohesion and dialogue among communities. DM

Photo: South African men run from police as rioting and looting was quelled during anti-foreigner violence in Durban April 14, 2015. REUTERS/Rogan Ward.

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