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For migrants, enjoying human rights in South Africa is a foreign concept


Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist and columnist at Daily Maverick and is part of the founding team of Maverick Citizen. Prior to Daily Maverick she worked as a communications and advocacy officer at Public Interest Law Centre SECTION27.

We pride ourselves on being a progressive country built on democratic principles. Yet xenophobic violence continues to fester unchecked. Perhaps Human Rights Day should further serve by placing an obligation on South Africans to not be blind or silent in the face of injustice.

The name Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave may not ring bells for most, but this is the man who was beaten, stabbed and set alight in the Ramaphosa informal settlement in Ekurhuleni, becoming the first person killed in xenophobic violence in 2008.

One would have thought that the images of his charred flesh and of him falling to his knees as the life drained out of him would have been enough for us not only to hang our heads in shame, but also to ensure that those responsible were dealt with swiftly and the abhorrent behaviour thwarted.

It is now 2022 and the world is experiencing unprecedented turmoil and uncertainty wrought partly by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also because human rights remain on the back burner — to our detriment.

As we look towards 21 March, 62 years after the Sharpeville Massacre in which 69 people protesting apartheid pass laws were killed by the police, Human Rights Day offers an opportunity not only to reflect on how well we’re doing in the upholding of these rights but also to measure how actively these rights are promoted and embedded in our society.

South Africa’s xenophobic violence seems to have as its lynchpin the scapegoating and targeting of migrants. The state continues to renege on its constitutional obligations to provide services to poor communities. Xenophobia has become so brazen that our leaders loudly declare and execute their intentions, but there is no sanction or mitigating action from the police.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report warned in 2020 that xenophobic violence was an area of great concern. The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights wrote to President Cyril Ramaphosa, highlighting this vulnerability and urging him to address it.

The HRW report said that law enforcement officials often responded with indifference, provided inadequate remedies to xenophobic attacks or participated in the harassment and attacks.

And so, who is to say that the burning alive of people will not become normalised, as the state remains mum in the face of this brutal rampage?

We should ask ourselves why xenophobia does not evoke a similar rebuke to racism? What makes it less of a crime when it is based on similar tenets of discrimination and persecution based on perceived difference?

This week is also Antiracism Week, which has “Unite and act against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerances” as its theme.

But it seems that human rights and social justice mean different things to different people and at different times.

Worryingly, it seems that for immigrants and asylum seekers, the enjoyment of basic human rights is becoming increasingly foreign in South Africa. As a result, they find themselves abused and excluded from social justice.

For those who may not be aware, people who are immigrants are also protected by the country’s Constitution and have the right to peace and security. International Human Rights Law, to which SA is subject, says, “All persons in South Africa share a certain set of basic human rights under international law, regardless of their immigration status.

“Refugees have, in addition, rights based on international refugee law and the principle that persons should not be returned to a country where they fear persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, or which they were compelled to leave owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order.”

How, then, do immigrants find themselves literally fighting for their lives?

Perhaps this Human Rights Day should be used not only to commemorate those who gave their lives for us to enjoy the fruits of their blood, but also to place an obligation on us to not be blind or silent in the face of injustice.

The day should inspire us to action in our communities and in the country, to denounce what is wrong and to closely examine some of the worrying behaviours that are creeping into South African society.

A quote from musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone comes to mind as I write this:

“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free

I wish I could break all the chains holding me…

Remove all the bars that keep us apart

I wish you could know what it means to be me

Then you’d see and agree

That every man should be free.”

The words of this song illustrate that everyone has a desire to live free of persecution — whether it be from war and strife in their own countries or xenophobic violence in the countries they flee to for sanctuary.

In South Africa, we pride ourselves on being a progressive country built on democratic principles. Nowhere in that is a commitment to “driving out foreigners” and to use them as a way to channel our frustration with the failures of our country’s government.

If the charred body of Ernesto Nhamuave was not enough to move us to say, “This stops here!”, what will be enough? DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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