South Africa


Attacks on foreign nationals and callous indifference

Attacks on foreign nationals and callous indifference

Xenophobic attacks remain a feature of South African life with authorities displaying an ambivalent response. In so doing the country fails to meet its international obligations, but more importantly it often fails to recognise the humanity of those who come from other parts of the South. This is a betrayal of some of the founding principles of our Constitution.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website

And Jesus said…’Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”- Matthew 8:20

The recent attacks and looting of shops owned by “foreign nationals” in Soweto is part of a pattern that has been manifested with greater or lesser intensity and visibility throughout the years of post-apartheid South Africa, in the cities and rural areas throughout the country. It involves state actions and that of ordinary citizens.

One of the patterns in the reactions to such violence is that the focus of authorities and the media is on the pretexts claimed for mounting attacks. In general, there has been little concern for the plight of those who are the recipients of assaults and looting.

The state expresses unhappiness with people “taking the law into their own hands”. There is an assumption that a crime has been or may have been committed by the victims, in this case shopkeepers. But the concern is to assert that it is state authority that must address this. The concern does not extend to the plight of those who are the recipients of lawless violence.

The pretext this time is fake goods or food that is sold after the expiry date and endangering health. There is no evidence – according to the authorities – that this was the case. If the food has expired, one person asked, why is it looted?

In other situations, there are claims of drug dealing or other forms of criminality. Most claims have been found after investigation to be baseless, though there are undoubtedly some foreign nationals who, like other people, do practice criminal activities or evade regulations.

In some cases, attacks are alleged to be motivated by foreign nationals taking jobs that “belong” to South Africans. There have been many studies that demonstrate that most of these jobs are ones that South Africans do not want. But it may be true that some employers prefer foreign nationals, especially those without documentation, because of their vulnerability. I have encountered situations where such people are employed at pitifully low wages and sometimes dismissed without pay, because the employer knows that those without documents will not approach the police.

The law enforcement agencies generally display indifference to the safety of the foreign nationals targeted and their properties. There are many photographs of police watching while looting continues or sometimes themselves looting. Police action in Soweto did not focus on defending the foreign nationals. Instead, state agencies set to work to “inspect” the goods complained of or the other complaints against those against whom people have assumed the power to attack and evict. It is important that authorities should carry out inspections. That is their duty, but they also owe a responsibility to those whose property, safety and physical wellbeing is under threat.

It is a mistake to believe that there is a generalised, unthinking hatred of foreigners (found in some definitions of the word xenophobia) or that these are primarily the actions of the average township dweller. There is plenty of evidence to show that many of these attacks – on shopkeepers – have been instigated by local business people who do not offer the same facilities as the Somalis and other non-South African shops. There are many cases of public threats to these foreign shopkeepers to get out before they are attacked, without their being afforded any state protection.

There is also substantial evidence that many township dwellers value the presence of foreign shopkeepers because of the type of service they render or because they have become integrated into some communities. There are cases of inhabitants of South African townships sheltering them or coming to their defence in other ways. There are some communities that have lived amicably with inhabitants from other parts of Africa, long before the fall of apartheid.

It is well known that some foreign Africans and Asians operate with a business model that allows economies of scale and that local business people have not been able to compete and sometimes claim to have been driven out of business. Some sensitivity has been shown in attempts to reduce tensions in the Western Cape, where foreign nationals have met with locals and passed on their trading methods to local shopkeepers.

From the earliest days of democracy, however, stigmatising of foreigners was a feature of public life. They were often referred to as “illegal aliens”, generally without a distinction drawn between those with or without papers entitling them to be legally in the country. I recall in the early years of democracy, seeing television footage of police kicking down doors of suspected “illegal aliens”, on the basis of suspicion that they may have had drugs or committed other offences. Some of these may have been valid raids, in that there may have been a reasonable suspicion that illegal activities were being conducted. But very often nothing more was heard, despite their homes having been violated by the authorities.

There is also considerable evidence that bribes were often demanded in order to avoid police attention – especially on the part of women marketing goods.(See Caroline Wanjiku Kihato, Migrant Women of Johannesburg. Life in an in-between city.2013)And if their papers were in order there are many cases where police simply tore these up. In Home Affairs offices, we also know that the process of obtaining or renewing papers is often very demeaning with officials throwing these on the ground for the applicant to pick up.

The foreigner, trying to settle in South Africa, having fled their homes in another country for a range of reasons, enters a harrowing process, filled with stress and abuse. Many women on seeking entry at the border, or in seeking accommodation are coerced into sex.

This is not to suggest that every foreigner is innocent of wrongdoing and it is important not to romanticise all foreigners as victims.

South Africa is bound by international conventions that commit it to treat refugees on a humane basis and it is clear that this is not being honoured.

When freedom fighters crossed the borders seeking sanctuary in order to avoid arrest in South Africa and continue the fight against apartheid from outside, they were not asked for their papers. I myself crossed the Zimbabwean border without a visa to attend a conference related to the Harare declaration on negotiations, when I defied my house arrest restrictions in 1989. On meeting a border official, I was asked to wait on the side and after letting others through he asked about my circumstances and let me in.

Many spent decades in the countries from whom current migrants in South Africa derive. They received hospitality in states which were punished by bombings and invasions of the apartheid regime.

The Bill of Rights, like the Freedom Charter affirms the rights of all inhabitants, not just citizens: “This Bill of Rights is a cornerstone of democracy in South Africa. It enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom.” (Article 7 (1) of the Constitution). This is no longer honoured. Citizenship and nationality are fetishised above the notion of sharing a common humanity, that we are morally bound to respect. It is true that there are some rights -to a state pension or social grants that are reserved for citizens, but most other rights are legally part of what accrues to all human beings by virtue of being human.

Respecting all who are human used to be the language of the ANC of Chief Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Albertina and Walter Sisulu, Lillian Ngoyi, Yusuf Dadoo, Chris Hani, Ruth First and others. If we hear those words today it is cynical, for the actions and inaction of ANC representatives belie any such commitment.

Let us be clear. Not all foreign nationals are vulnerable to attack. It is not the wealthy business people from the suburbs who come under attack. It is those from the poorest countries of Africa and Asia, who live among the most downtrodden people in our country, who are constantly vulnerable.

Why is this happening in South Africa, a country which won its freedom after decades of struggle against the ruthless apartheid regime? In the entire post-apartheid period, but especially over the last ten years, the mutual concern, solidarity, sense of responsibility to one another that animated the best of the struggle experience has been challenged and, in many ways, displaced by self-enrichment and self-advancement and indifference to the plight of the poor and vulnerable.

There is a language that has been forgotten or suppressed or repressed, a language and a state of mind or being that was once lived out by freedom fighters, who have now become leaders who can at best think technocratically.

When leaders express the language of concern, insofar as it lacks real conviction and has not for some time been acted on, those who would like that to be acted on know that it cannot be relied on.

Allowing these attacks on foreigners is related to a more generalised indifference to the pain and experiences of the poor, more generally, often allowing lives and wellbeing to be threatened. It is part of the same callousness that allows children to continue to be subjected to undignified or unhealthy or dangerous conditions with pit toilets set to be eliminated only in 2030 and a court order requiring immediate action being appealed by the state.

This absence of compassion has been seen in the Life Esidimeni negligent deaths and attacks on the wellbeing of patients. This has been with limited consequences, and in fact political reward with the re-election of former Gauteng Health MEC, Qedani Mahlangu to the provincial executive of the ANC.

Again, it is seen in the deaths in a building in Johannesburg that was only 15% compliant with safety regulations. The fire that raged for three days in the Bank of Lisbon building was put out by firefighters who have 10-15 fire engines in working order when there ought to be 100 and with apparently faulty equipment.

It is the same indifference that repeatedly denies access to water or allows water supplies to be polluted, endangering health of the poor, as in the case of Boiphatong now.

Like many others, I have tried to adopt a constructive approach to the Cyril Ramaphosa-led ANC and government, appreciating how important it has been to remove Jacob Zuma and the efforts made to restore legality and regularity, especially in the state – and state-owned enterprises. The process of tackling corruption has been difficult but appears to have been undertaken with considerable energy.

But the mindset of the Zuma period, where the plight of the vulnerable was of little concern, has not yet been eradicated. In the Zuma period enrichment and personal advancement became everything for many in the ANC and its allies. There was little place in their thinking for those who had been oppressed under apartheid and continued to be marginalised.

A sense of solidarity with those who are experiencing oppression needs to be rekindled. That is what many fought for and it remains what many still believe. The impetus for renewal may need to come from outside the ANC. But those who wish South Africa to be a humane society, that cares about all who inhabit its territory, need to find ways of voicing and rebuilding a society that cherishes this concern. DM

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic advisor to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg and emeritus professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoirInside Apartheid’s prison wasreissued with a new introduction in 2017. He blogs at and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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