The recent xenophobic violence in Johannesburg leaves a sickening feeling in your gut because of its familiarity and your feeling of helplessness and shame. The vibrancy and vitality of Johannesburg’s cities have in two days been closed up behind rolled down metal doors, the goods inside stolen and looted, some burnt. In many instances, people have fled what was once their shop during the day and their home at night. We all feel it. We all fear going to work, leaving for home. Will we get there safely? Xenophobic violence affects us all.
South Africa has for far too long relied on the myth of non-nationals being the reason for all our social ills: crime, systemic unemployment and rampant homelessness that are actually a legacy of apartheid but that persist after some two decades of democracy. This myth has now become a normalised construct, a language which gives a reason to exorcise the humanity from people. We experienced the shattering xenophobic experiences of 2008 and then intermittent outbursts of similar violence over the years to date, never mind the ongoing, everyday tensions and attacks. We know that xenophobia is pervasive in South African society. The silence in response is deafening.
These attacks target the specific livelihoods, spaces and bodies of the most vulnerable people in society, who spend their lives on the streets of this city eking out a living for survival.
When civil society organisations plead with government leaders to recognise the xenophobic or gendered nature of violence, we are at one level asking you to condemn and intervene in the detrimental physical impact this has on selected groups of people. We are asking you to further acknowledge and respond to the pervasive and often silenced ways xenophobia and gendered violence are instituted in policing, education, workspaces, healthcare, documentation and housing.
This is about all of us. This is about poor people. This is about black people. This is about women and children. It is about the viability and safety of the spaces in which people work, trade and live. Why are law enforcement agents criminalising poverty? Why are law enforcement agents criminalising migration? Since when was working in the so-called “informal sector” a criminal offence?
South Africa: you are policing the wrong places. Informal trade and the informal sector are the only places creating work and keeping families alive in many cases, as the private sector is shedding jobs. The informal sector makes up a significant component of South Africa’s economy and is central to addressing some of South Africa’s major socio-economic challenges, including starvation and poverty. It offers opportunities for survival that bring back dignity and self-worth to human beings who would otherwise have to resort to begging for survival. This, while graduates walk the street facing the humiliation and indignity of systemic unemployment in our country.
We know that informal traders and others in the informal sector have precarious jobs, whether you are South African or a foreign national. Hawkers and informal traders are in a vulnerable position with little or no protection. This is because the trade unions are failing to unionise this workforce. There are regular reports that their stock is stolen, looted, or confiscated, traders are evicted or relocated, or premises burnt. Informal traders support households, families and extended networks. The impact of confiscation or eviction has a detrimental effect on all households as people spiral into abject poverty. Their working conditions are deplorable. And it is often these individuals that become the targets of xenophobic violence.
Unfortunately, xenophobia has found roots even in certain critical institutions of our democracy. The asylum system is dysfunctional, and it is the system that is failing to offer protection to those fleeing conflict and violence on our continent. The Department of Home Affairs is failing to meet the aim set out in the White Paper on International Migration, articulating a vision based on “the crucial contribution inward and outward migration makes and will make to growing our economy and to the transformation of Africa”.
The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) mobilised millions of people living with or affected by HIV in our country to force the government to denounce the denialism of the Mbeki government and to develop a policy based on science that HIV causes AIDS. We can learn from the legacy of the TAC. Today we are failing as a people to stop the opportunism of political leaders who make unsubstantiated statements about migrants being responsible for crime, for the collapsed public health system, for unemployment, and for poverty in our country. We are paying the price for allowing the growth of denialism of xenophobia in South Africa. And the price is the ongoing carnage and loss of innocent lives. To address poverty and unemployment, we need to unite in solidarity and organise ourselves in the way that the TAC did. In solidarity, we stand against violence. DM
Sharon Ekambaram is the manager of the Refugee and Migrant Project at Lawyers for Human Rights. Abigail Dawson is the media and communication officer at the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is an ordained minister.