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Deconstructing political party-speak on xenophobia – calming messages or inflammatory statements?

Deconstructing political party-speak on xenophobia – calming messages or inflammatory statements?
In a landmark court decision, the Gauteng High Court recently confirmed the rights of all pregnant and lactating women and children under the age of six to access services for free at all levels of care. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

Following the horrific gang rape of eight women on a Krugersdorp movie shoot, allegedly by illegal miners known as zama zamas, South Africa is again on the precipice of rising anti-foreigner sentiment. Daily Maverick examines the signals being sent out by political parties in the past month.

The messages are about undocumented people, immigration and xenophobia. The current xenophobic rhetoric and comments from politicians have resulted in an “environment of tension and fear, and fuels unlawful, inciting and discriminatory anti-migrant movements to gather momentum and legitimacy to the detriment of all,” said the Scalabrini Centre this week. 

Tensions run high in the country, following the gang rape of eight women in Krugersdorp, alleged to have been committed by illegal miners. 

Scalabrini Centre’s head of advocacy, James Chapman, told Daily Maverick that these statements particularly affect vulnerable migrants including refugees, asylum seekers and survivors of human trafficking. 

Recent incidents of inflammatory statements come after the gang rape of eight women, while shooting a music video in the Krugersdorp mining area known as West Village, an area that has become notorious for illegal mining operations.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Krugersdorp victim’s ordeal: ‘I closed my eyes, crying. Moments later, I was also raped, by three men”

“Scalabrini would appeal to political parties, to politicians and all South Africans, to speak out in favour of social cohesion and the importance of living and working together as South African and migrant communities towards a better South Africa,” said Chapman. 

In recent months, several incidents have been seen as xenophobic.

These include:

In June, the United Nations special rapporteurs called on the South African government to take against xenophobic mobilisation. 

DA condemns

The Democratic Alliance spoke out specifically against xenophobia in the past few weeks. In a strongly worded statement attributed to party leader John Steenhuisen, the leading opposition party said: “The DA strongly condemns the recent xenophobic incitement and attacks by politicians from several parties… political leaders playing cheap populist politics by scapegoating foreigners for our country’s ills have misjudged the people of this country.” 

As a party, the African National Congress has not has not spoken directly about xenophobia since the Krugersdorp gang rapes and its links to illegal mining – but on the party’s Twitter feed, is a call for a march against “illegal immigrants”, “zama zamas” and “rapists”. The party called for law enforcement to shut down illegal mines. 

During a multiparty protest on 3 August outside the Krugersdorp Magistrates’ Court, TimesLive quoted ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe as saying: “SA is not a playground… We are a very serious country. Those who are foreign nationals and want to come to this country must do so legally. Foreign nationals who are in the country illegally have to be taken back home because we cannot afford crimes being committed by foreign nationals who are undocumented.” 

ANC deflects

Daily Maverick contacted the ANC several times to confirm their stance on xenophobia, but was given the runaround – we were referred by the ANC’s media team to Head of Organising Nomvula Mokonyane, who referred us to the ANC chair of International Relations, Minister Lindiwe Zulu, who did not respond to calls or messages. 

The Economic Freedom Fighters, which has the third biggest representation in Parliament, did not refer to migrants in their statement on the Krugersdorp rapes. But said in a statement afterwards: “The community of Krugersdorp has been under constant terror of crime from the so-called zama zama’s, yet there has been no coherent intervention from the authorities.” 

Other parties such as the Patriotic Alliance (PA) and ActionSA – which have have seats in municipal councils but no seats in Parliament, and have made xenophobic comments in the past – have also spoken out, following the gang rapes. 

PA President Gayton McKenzie, in a speech after he became mayor of the Central Karoo District Municipality, described undocumented people as a “stain” and said the area would be an immigrant-free zone. 

PA: shoot to kill?

Following the Krugersdorp crimes, McKenzie said the army needed to be brought in to raid every illegal mining activity and should “shoot to kill” if confronted with violence from illegal miners. 

An ActionSA statement about the gang rape said:

“This kind of unprovoked, brutal criminality is becoming increasingly commonplace in South Africa, and reflects a broader pattern of gender-based violence and the general collapse of the rule of law under the ANC”. While ActionSA did not mention foreigners, at a protest outside the Krugersdorp Magistrates Court on 11 August, the party tweeted that the government should address the issue of illegal immigration and “ensure that the rule of law is adhered to in order to prevent such violent crimes in our communities”. 

ActionSA president Herman Mashaba said “we have to get rid of illegal foreigners” in a 2021 interview, where he was unapologetic about his stance on undocumented people. 

History of xenophobic incidents

South Africa has a history of xenophobic incidents. In 1994, a survey found that 21% of South Africans were in favour of a complete ban on foreign entry. 

In 2000, seven foreign nationals in Cape Town were killed in the space of five weeks. Among those killed were Nigerians, Angolans and a Kenyan.  

In 2008, violence against foreigners spread across the country with 62 people reported dead. Reuters reported that 50,000 people, mainly Mozambicans and Zimbabweans, left due to the unrest. Less than a tenth of the 1,400 people arrested for the xenophobic violence were in jail a year later. 

In 2009, during the farmworkers protests in De Doorns, Western Cape, an estimated 3,000 people, mostly from Zimbabwe, were forced out of the area. Despite both Lesotho and Zimbabwe nationals working in the farming area, the perception was that Zimbabweans at the time were “systematically accepting lower wages from the farmers and, as a result, the farmers preferred to employ them over the locals, according to a De Doorns report titled Xenophobia and Outsider Exclusion: Addressing Frail Social Cohesion in South Africa’s Diverse Communities by Freedom House.

Politicians’ xenophobic statements

Migrant activist Anthony Muteti told Daily Maverick this week that “as migrants we note with regret the escalation of xenophobic statements from politicians across the political spectrum… For those like me, who witnessed the 2008 xenophobic violence, the statements send chiling shivers down my spine”. 

Muteti, a Zimbabwean activist and one of the founders of the People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty, said among the migrant community there is so much fear and despondency because statements sound like an “incitement to violence” and “we know that the issue of migration is not a popular subject in communities”. 

“I can tell you now that Zimbabweans are sending whatever belongings they have across the border because the situation has never been so uncertain,” he said. 

Previously, xenophobic comments and statements came up during election periods, said Muteti, but now “there is contestation of power at every level, and migration has become a big issue”. 

Daily Maverick asked Scalabrini’s Chapman what effect inflammatory statements could have on either calming or expanding possible tensions.

His answer: “Divisive and inflammatory comments targeted at migrants will result in the increased harassment, violence and crime against migrants in South Africa, including migrant women and girls, in a month dedicated to countering and stopping gender-based violence.” DM

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