Opinionista Russell Pollitt 30 January 2015

Op-Ed: Our silence is our disgrace

The word ‘xenophobia’ has reared its ugly head again in South Africa. Some civil authorities refuse to believe in xenophobia, trying to label the violence “criminality”. Most people are led to believe that, from time to time, this disgraceful side of South Africa flares up and dies down. This time round it was all caused by the murder of a 14 year old boy by a foreign national. If you believe this, you are being deceived. What has not been reported in the headlines is that every year since 2008 (2009 being the only exception) many more people have died in xenophobic attacks in South Africa. In 2013 alone, some 240 refugees were killed in this country – some in the most gruesome circumstances.

On the outskirts of the inner city of Johannesburg, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) operates on a local and regional level. It is an international organisation that was founded by Fr. Pedro Arrupe (the head of the Society of Jesus) in 1980 in response to the Vietnamese boat people who were seeking refuge after the Vietnam War. JRS assists forcibly displaced peoples and asylum seekers by attempting to provide for their educational, health, nutritional and social needs. They also run projects that support people in setting up income-generating activities so that they can make an honest living.

JRS has been operating in South Africa for 18 years. It is an implementing partner of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Today JRS operates in more than 50 countries around the world – including Central Africa and the Middle East.

Organisations like JRS are in touch with the day-to-day lives and struggles of displaced people; they often have information and data not taken seriously by local and national authorities. Since 2008, for example, JRS has consistently warned that xenophobic violence is always simmering below the surface in some communities. This is often fuelled by local authorities, like municipalities, who pass statutes with the express aim of excluding foreigners from the local economy and isolating them from integration.

Xenophobia appears to be a well-established part of the South African landscape,” says Fr. David Holdcroft SJ, director of JRS in Southern Africa. He can recount numerous stories from his work with displaced people that suggest xenophobia is, alas, in our bones.

It is unfortunate that South Africans seem to have such short memories. In the apartheid era, many South Africans enjoyed the hospitality of nations all over Africa and, indeed, the world. Foreigners who welcomed South African exiles sometimes risked their own wellbeing and security and yet, despite this, supported the fight for freedom. In return for their hospitality, which spanned decades, South Africans have robbed, looted, attacked and murdered their compatriots.

Not only does this make a mockery of our Constitution, but it also contradicts the oft thrown around South Africanism of ‘Ubuntu’ – ‘a person is a person through other people’. The Bill of Rights does not discriminate between citizens and non-citizens. Section 7 of the Constitution stipulates that the Bill of Rights “enshrines the rights of all people in our country”. The shelter of protection given by our Constitution extends to all of us because we are human beings, giving recognition to our inherent dignity and equality – something apartheid denied. It is the responsibility of the state to adequately protect all those living within its borders, when it does not enforce the law or educate citizenry in the proper way to deal with non-citizens, it fails and, as we witnessed in 2008 and again last week, chaos ensues.

If we are going to face up to this deplorable situation Fr. Holdcroft suggests that a number of commonly held myths need to be debunked:

Myth 1: South Africa is overrun by immigrants and refugees.

South Africa hosts one of the highest asylum seeking populations in the world. However, overall it is a low-ranking immigration country with 6-7% of its population foreign-born, roughly four million people out of 54 million people.

Myth 2: Immigrants, and in particular refugees, take local jobs.

A mounting body of research from countries as varied as Uganda, Tanzania, Denmark and Australia suggests that refugees and immigrants provide a service not previously catered for and create jobs and benefit the economy. Poor South Africans in the last week corroborated this when they lamented the loss of the local Somalian-run spaza shops that provided good service, credit when times are tough and cheap groceries in a nearby location. Consider other contexts: the US under both President George W Bush and President Barack Obama tolerate 13 million Mexican labourers within their borders, Thailand three million Myanmarese, and Tanzania absorbed 80,000 ex-refugees into their country. For governments, high immigration makes economic sense. Refugees are more likely to take risks in business and have the associated entrepreneurial skills.

Myth 3: By accepting refugees South Africa discourages people from returning to their own country.

In fact, refugees that do well are the main source of development aid to their countries of origin where they often have remaining family. In this way they contribute to lasting peace building in a manner that no UN force could dream of doing.

Myth 4: By accepting immigrants, South Africa is in danger of losing its cultures.

Fr. Holdcroft suggests that we look at Australia for insight. Successive waves of immigrants have changed the fabric of Australian society in a manner that no one could have dreamed or planned. It has produced tensions, but a genuine multi-cultural experiment has left the country receptive to greater trade with more partners than before.

Myth 5: Immigration encourages terrorism.

Interestingly, the Charlie Hebdo perpetrators are reported to have felt French but were regarded (by many French) as “foreign”. If we do not include immigrants into the development of a society then the pre-indicators of disaffection and its results mount; immigration is something that has to be worked at constantly.

Myth 6: South Africans are unwelcoming.

It is my experience that South Africans are as hospitable as any race on earth,” says Fr. Holdcroft, “Xenophobia has its roots somewhere else and it is important to understand this.”

Fr. Holdcroft says that if South Africa is going to move forward then we need to call these attacks what they are: xenophobic and therefore criminal and not simply just “criminality”. Last week some civil and political officials denied that the attacks were xenophobic, labelling them as the activity of criminal elements. This is hard to argue when 340 foreigners’ shops were looted.

Fr. Holdcroft suggests it will be vital to bring community, political and religious leaders together to talk about the causes of these attacks. He believes that the real reasons lie in the realm of lack of hope and vision in a society where many young people are entering adulthood with poor education, few prospects and little political voice. Nor do they perceive that the leadership really cares or is listening to them. “The root causes of xenophobia lie in the great wealth disparity, and geographically defined social and economic exclusion of large portions of the community who do not experience the social compact that coheres a society into something meaningful for all its constituents. The lack of accountability to a local constituency is a particular feature of South Africa which must be addressed,” he says.

If government really wants to stop this scourge and takes the views of organisations like JRS seriously then they would, for example, embark upon a serious and systematic civic education campaign that ensures South Africans know the facts about the contribution that migrants make to host countries. They would regularly tell stories of how they were welcomed and treated with hospitality in countries around the globe as they fought a system that stripped millions of South Africans of their dignity and thousands of their lives. The generation of South Africans currently in power can make a difference by sharing their stories of exile and hospitality. Remember when Mandela told the nation and the world about his own son’s death caused by HIV? He is reported to have said, “Let us give publicity to HIV/Aids and not hide it, because the only way to make it appear like a normal illness like tuberculosis, like cancer, is always to come out and say somebody has died because of HIV/Aids, and people will stop regarding it as something extraordinary.” Why don’t we do the same when it comes to xenophobia? It’s real stories that count.

The struggle against the forces of racism, the evil of forced poverty and scapegoating thrive and threaten our social spectrum 20 years after democracy. Since 2008 very little has been done. There has been no public campaign in response to xenophobia on any national scale – ones on the scale, for example, that were used to educate people on HIV/Aids, ‘Love life’ or ‘Heartlines’. The silence is deafening. DM

Russell Pollitt SJ is the director of the Jesuit Institute of South Africa.


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