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South Africa’s Shameful Xenophobic Decade


Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.

Sixty-two foreign migrants lost their lives and more than 200,000 were displaced during xenophobic attacks in South Africa 10 years ago. In an analysis of the 2008 attacks, the HSRC contended that “there has been a steady increase in the expression of xenophobic sentiments at both the level of officials within the state, as well as in the popular discourse in the country”.

May 2018 marks yet another shameful anniversary in South Africa – a decade since the outbreak of xenophobic violence, which has continued sporadically, and sometimes more systematically (April 2015), in different parts of the country.

On 23 May 2008, Business Report carried the headline, “The week proudly SA turned to barbarism” in an article written by Terry Bell, who argued:

But our week of tears had been particularly bitter in that the poor, dispossessed and exploited, who suffered, did so at the hands of their fellows. And the government cannot escape its share of responsibility … Poverty, bureaucratic inefficiencies, arrogance and corruption all played a part in creating the conditions in which frustration and hopelessness could turn to blind rage. And the social and economic environment of a country is largely created by the government, encouraged always by those who profit most from the status quo. So it was that our government, in alliance with business and most opposition parties, promoted the virus of nationalism which, in the right conditions, could mutate into rabid xenophobia.”

Sixty-two foreign migrants lost their lives and more than 200,000 were displaced. In an analysis of the 2008 attacks, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) contended that “there has been a steady increase in the expression of xenophobic sentiments at both the level of officials within the state, as well as in the popular discourse in the country”.

A related trend according to the HSRC was the “steady increase in the number of actual attacks on foreign nationals since 1994. It is important to keep in mind that violence perpetrated against foreign migrants, and particularly Africans, was documented as early as 1994”.

On 14 May 2018, the Mercury reported that foreigners living in townships to the north of Durban were served with the following notice on 3 May 2018:

The North Region Business Association (Norba) hereby instructs you to close down your shop and cease all operations within 14 days of this notice. You will receive the next instruction from your own association representative.”

An interesting question is whether there are any connections between the operations of amaDela Ngokubona, described as a “shady, Mafia-style” Business Forum (which recently honoured former president Zuma), and which have disrupted multimillion-rand construction projects around Durban because they did not receive sub-contracts, and recent developments north of the city.

The intention of the North Region Business Association was to close all foreign-owned shops in Inanda, Ntuzuma, KwaMashu and Phoenix “as the local spaza shop owners were becoming increasingly impatient”.

The KZN Somali Community Council had referred this xenophobic intimidation to “local ward councillors and relevant police offices in order for the incident to be addressed and properly mitigated before it spirals into mob violence”.

In May 2008 Pierre Matate, co-ordinator of the KwaZulu-Natal Refugee Council, wrote to then eThekwini Mayor Obed Mlaba, Ministry of Home Affairs, the Office of the KwaZulu-Natal Premier, the Minister of Justice, and the Presidency, and others leaders, expressing concern about threats of mob violence against foreigners in Durban and surrounding areas. There appeared to be little or no response from the authorities.

Savious Kwinika, from the Centre for African Journalists, contended that “politicians desperate for votes in the tense fight to win over the electorate that is bearing the brunt of economic challenges such as poverty and joblessness, have in recent polls made the most of the local citizens’ desperation such that it has become fashionable to single out foreigners for South Africa’s woes”.

This view was reinforced by Marc Gbaffou, chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum (ADF).

We are definitely worried while getting closer to the general elections scheduled for 2019,” he said.

This is because based on past experience, foreign nationals have paid with their lives during such elections … Those politicians who have no tangible arguments to convince their electorate always take the shortcut by accusing foreign nationals. It’s a populist approach which seems to be working very well in South Africa. The idea is to make community members‎ believe that migrants are the cause of their suffering … (hence) … the repeated attacks on the migrants’ community in the past 10 years.”

Gbaffou has contended that the communities who protest because of poor service delivery are frustrated and “are taking it out on migrants … It can be any one of us here who comes across a crowd which is protesting … because you are from Zimbabwe, Ghana, Mozambique, Ivory Coast or Liberia, people decide to kill you.”

The ADF maintained that South Africa was only interested in the African continent for business and investment purposes, but must “first accept the people who ran away, came here, before (any) talk about doing business”.

Furthermore, a compassionate, humanitarian approach was required to understand their plight, and the South African Government must introduce legislation to protect migrants.

However, the Bill of Rights in chapter two of the Constitution “is a cornerstone of democracy in South Africa. It enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom”.

A major concern was the weak enforcement of law and order.

According to the Human Rights Watch World Report 2018, notwithstanding a decade of attacks and threats against foreigners, “the South African authorities appeared reluctant to even publicly acknowledge xenophobia and take decisive action to combat it. Virtually no one has been convicted over past outbreaks of xenophobic violence, including for the Durban violence of April 2015 that displaced thousands of foreign nationals, or the 2008 attacks, which resulted in the deaths of more than 60 people across the country”.

A related issue raised by the Human Rights Watch World Report was the South African government’s failure as yet to approve “the draft national action plan to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, or provide a mechanism for justice and accountability for xenophobic crimes”.

Politicians also continued to promote a public xenophobic discourse with impunity. In December 2016 Herman Mashaba, mayor of the DA-controlled City of Johannesburg, wanted all foreigners leave his city because they were responsible for crime and violence.

On 14 July 2017, Deputy Minister of Police Bongani Mkongi asked: “How can a city in South Africa be 80 percent foreign national? That is dangerous. South Africans have surrendered their own city to the foreigners.

The warning issued by WITS African Centre for Migration & Society researcher Jean Pierre Misago that the violent attacks was not only about getting rid of foreign nationals should be taken seriously: it is about sections of the population deciding who has the right to cities and opportunities they offer. And we should all be afraid. When violent exclusion makes political and economic sense, everyone is at risk. After all, we are all outsiders one way or another. DM


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