Defend Truth


The struggle lives on – in xenophobia


Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good and is the head of programmes at the International Fund for Public Interest Media. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, a co-founder of the youth-driven, award-winning digital news startup The Daily Vox and a vice-chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand). 

The much trumpeted Cape-to-Cairo free-trade zone will straddle 26 countries, 525 million people and is set to spawn $1 trillion. But how will this great plan stack up against the xenophobia-riddled reality of South Africa?

All of these are neat numbers that are sure to whet the appetite of the money men, and rightly so. The interesting part of the negotiations to mow down our borders is a plan to better facilitate the movement of business people between African countries. Business travellers will be able to hop between African states with far less bureaucratic wrangling. Again, rightly so. There certainly needs to be a greater emphasis on connecting Africans with themselves, not just in prosaic digital terms but also physically.

Any legislation that seeks to ease the path for Africans to travel, and do business, within Africa is laudable. This is the sort of effort that will go a long way towards unshackling Africa from the weight of its past. But when the Human Rights Commission cites a key trigger of violence against foreign nationals in xenophobic hotspots to be localised competition for political and economic power, how will the possibility of  throngs of fellow Africans flocking to our borders to wheel and deal translate in a South Africa already deeply antagonistic towards foreign nationals trying to eke out a living here?

Violence against foreigners did not miraculously erupt in 2008 and it certainly has not been dormant since. Xenophobic violence, violence that is aimed at foreign nationals because they are, well, foreign, has been a feature of post-Apartheid South Africa. Accused of stealing jobs, summarily branded as a shifty population of criminals, and blamed for the spread of infectious diseases, the “kwerekwere” have become the unfortunate scapegoats of economic difficulty. And yet the facts, the sort of facts think-tanks from the underbellies of universities publish, have shown that the greatest incidence of xenophobic violence has not occurred in sites with the highest rates of unemployment, or even the highest percentages of poverty. These are not the sites with highest percentage of poorly educated residents or the highest saturation of foreign residents, these are areas characterised by high levels of economic deprivation, high percentages of male residents, high levels of informal housing and high levels of linguistic diversity. Put together these statistics point not so much to a crippling poverty but to a haunting failure of democracy.

These are people who, except for visiting the polling booth every few years, have little means of accessing the processes that decide their futures. Bereft of the niceties of a direct line to the president or even functioning ward committees, leaders and aspirant leaders in xenophobic hotspots have been found to mobilise residents to attack and evict foreign nationals as a means of strengthening their personal, political or economic power within the community. Most recently, violence against foreign-owned businesses has been organised by business owners set on eliminating their competition. Foreign shopkeepers are accused of a deliberate agenda to “kill off” local business and, in the guise of concerned business forums, local spaza shop-owners have organised uprisings against them. At its heart, xenophobic violence is an expression of an ill-founded sense of entitlement. It is the product of a dangerous frustration with the inability of South Africans to claim what they believe is rightfully theirs.

Last month the UN Human Rights Council discussed recommendations from UN special rapporteur Jorge Bustamante for South Africa to introduce new anti-hate crime legislation. Bustamante called on the authorities to: “make any act of violence against individuals or property on the basis of a person’s race, nationality, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity (‘hate crime’) an aggravating circumstance”; “provide effective resources and training for police, justice and other relevant officials to ensure the successful implementation of the provisions of the law, including training on detecting, recording and prosecuting hate crimes, as well as monitoring any trends in them”; and establish “a permanent body in the office of the presidency to ensure effective co-ordination of different government department programs on social cohesion, addressing xenophobia, police profiling and tackling hate crimes.”

While these recommendations are commendable for offering the Union Buildings some direction in tackling the incidences of xenophobic violence, they are hardly new. The Human Rights Commission has recommended much the same: enhanced hate-crime legislation and improved collaboration between communities vulnerable to hate violence and the police.

A deadly attack on a Zimbabwean man in Diepsloot has focused global attention on xenophobic violence in South Africa. As outrage pours in from the rest of the world those South Africans fortunate enough to be securely behind boom gates and electric fences have pronounced their shock and dismay at the report. It is sickening to read and watch a man being killed like a hapless ant at the mercy of the footfall of a giant. It is the impunity with which violence is meted out to foreigners in this country that is most staggering; you fear that all the human rights reports, proposals and recommendations will fall on deaf ears. These are places, as Professor Anton Harber so adroitly describes, where, “the grey areas… between right and wrong are murkier than they are in places where there is the rule of law, proper lighting and doors which can be securely locked.”

Foreign immigration to South Africa is an intractable problem. For one, the country does not have a clearly defined immigration policy and the estimate of immigrants, legal and illegal, ranges from 2 million to as many as 6 million. Making up a sizeable chunk of that number are people from neighbouring countries who have crossed the border into South Africa to work. There is little doubt that should the free trade block loosen conditions for business travel, many, many more will make their way across the border, seeking their economic liberty in a South African slice of bread, but if South Africa is to address the problem of xenophobia adequately and develop a more pragmatic approach to cross-border movements, it is essential to tackle the virulent opposition to immigration. For now, in the words of Ferial Haffajee, “only the middle class can afford to be libertarian about migration”. 

Until a comprehensive effort is made to tackle the impunity with which violence is committed against foreigners in this country, the violence will not abate. In the cold and dark of winter it may well snowball into a repeat of the 2008 xenophobic riots that took the lives of so many. There is an almost unreachable quality in accounts of xenophobic hotspots, a whole other world on our doorstep. Highbrow condemnation of xenophobia that appeals to the legacy of the struggle, invoking the memory of the hospitality our leaders were shown in the darkest days of the struggle misses the point. For people contesting their bread on the margins of formal society the “struggle” is still very much alive. DM


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