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Human Rights Watch highlights xenophobia as a threat to human rights in South Africa

Protesters carry anti-xenophobia posters during a mass march in Johannesburg. Life has only seemed to become harder for refugees and asylum seekers. (Photo: EPA / Kim Ludbrook)

South Africa’s xenophobic violence was brought into sharp focus and identified as an area of great concern and acrimony in 2020. This, the report said, was despite the government’s launch in 2019 of the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, foregrounded the Human Rights Watch-World 2021 report that covers the human rights performance of nearly 100 countries across Africa, South and North America, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, by casting a spotlight on what he titled Biden’s Challenge: Redeeming a US Role for Human Rights. 

He said that incoming president Joe Biden would have to now deal with the legacy of outgoing president Donald Trump’s eroding of the United States’ human rights credibility. He listed this legacy as the flagrant flouting of refugee or asylum seekers’ rights to family life and safety, the undermining of democratic practices, the emboldening of white supremacist groups, growing acts of racism, religious persecution, the denial of sexual and reproductive rights and climate crisis denialism, among a litany of other abuses.

Trump had also attempted to undermine the legitimacy and independence of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and attempted to place travel and economic sanctions on people associated with the ICC. However, South Africa, with 66 other countries, reaffirmed support for the International Criminal Court as an impartial and independent judicial institution, saying that the ICC was critical in the fight against impunity and essential to maintaining peace and fostering conciliatory relations among countries. 

Protesters gather across the street from the White House in Washington DC during a June 2020 demonstration over the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody. (Photo: Samuel Corum / Getty Images)

Specifically referring Africa’s role in holding the Trump administration to account on racism, Roth noted that “African governments, led by South Africa, demanded an inquiry into systemic racism and police violence around the world, building a cross-regional coalition to stand up to the US government following the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis”. 

Roth cautioned that Biden’s ascension to the presidency should, however, not be seen as a “panacea”. Preceding incumbents had often held varied and inconsistent human rights policy positions. This, he said, had left many leaders across the globe ambivalent about relying on the US to uphold human rights.

“The challenge for Biden will be not simply to reverse the damage to human rights done by his predecessor, but also to make it more difficult for future presidents to retreat yet again,” said Roth. 

Roth pointed out that the global human rights vacuum created by Trump allowed other countries to step forward and continue the pursuit of these rights, and that Biden’s role now should not be about leading rights protection, but rather working side by side with countries committed to human rights. According to Roth, “The past four years have demonstrated that Washington is an important, but not indispensable member of this broader team defending rights.”

“Biden’s task is to find a way, through policy and practise, to make upholding human rights more central to US government conduct in a way that has a better chance of surviving the radical changes in policy that have become a fixture of the US political landscape,” concluded Roth.

Xenophobic violence was brought into sharp focus and identified as an area of great concern and acrimony in South Africa. This, the report said, was despite the government’s launch of the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in 2019.

Concern for the safety and security of asylum seekers and refugees in South Africa was so high that on 24 March 2020 the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights wrote President Cyril Ramaphosa a letter pointing out this vulnerability and urging him to address it.

According to the report, law enforcement officials often responded with indifference, provided inadequate remedies to xenophobic attacks or participated in the harassment and attacks. This left refugees and asylum seekers unprotected, particularly during the Covid-19 national lockdown, where they were overlooked when it came to food parcels and subsistence grants.

The report specifically mentioned that the SAPS and metro police used the excuse of counterfeit goods to raid and harass businesses owned and run by foreign nationals, using beatings, teargas and rubber bullets. Victims of these raids claim that the police re-sell the confiscated goods back to them.

The report said frequent incidents of xenophobia showed that “while the 2019 National Action Plan to combat xenophobia, racism, and discrimination marked an important step toward recognising and addressing these abuses, it has not ensured accountability for xenophobic crimes.”

Protesters march against gender-based violence at the JSE in Sandton in 2019 after the rape and murder of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana in Cape Town. (Photo: Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius)

Another alarming human rights issue noted by the report in South Africa is the gender-based violence crisis, acknowledged by president Ramaphosa as a second pandemic that South Africa has to contend with, highlighting that 51% of women had experienced violence in an intimate partner relationship.

The criminalisation of sex work in South Africa is reported as undermining “sex workers’ access to justice for crimes committed against them”. It exposed them “to unchecked abuse and exploitation by law enforcement officials, including police officers”.

Children’s human rights were infringed on two fronts; by the Department of Basic Education failing to come up with an adequate plan to feed nine million learners as stipulated in the National School Nutrition Programme and in the Centre for Child Law’s case fighting for the rights of migrant and undocumented learners to receive an education. 

The report described the South African government’s response to Covid-19 as having “overlooked refugees and asylum seekers. Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) African asylum seekers and undocumented migrants were also overlooked. Sex worker rights groups also noted that this vulnerable population had been left out of relief planning. The government did not sufficiently consult with people with disabilities in its Covid-19 policies, leaving many at serious risk of Covid-19 infection, hunger and other harms.”

As a result, on 12 May 2020, the rapporteur for South Africa at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Solomon Ayele Dersso, sent an urgent appeal to the government to protect the rights of vulnerable groups, including refugees, asylum seekers and migrants during the national lockdown. DM/MC

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