Addressing xenophobic violence in South Africa

On Friday 24th February, a large-scale and officially sanctioned anti-immigration protest was held in Pretoria. Police used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds and made 136 arrests in total. Protesters marched to the Foreign Ministry and handed a petition to government representatives in which they accused immigrants of stealing jobs from South Africans and causing crime. There are fears that this is leading towards a repeat of the horrific xenophobic violence that swept South Africa in 2008 and led to the deaths of 60 people, reigniting in 2015 and claiming seven lives in Johannesburg and Durban.

Many Canon Collins scholars and alumni are closely engaged with issues of immigration, and protecting the rights of migrants in South Africa. We spoke to them about the deep roots of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment in South African society, and the urgent need for this to be tackled head-on by a government that has, so far, been lacklustre in their response.
Alice Wamundiya (MPhil Migration and Displacement, University of the Witwatersrand) is originally from Rwanda, but her family fled to South Africa after the 1994 genocide. Frustrated by difficulties she and other asylum seekers faced when trying to access tertiary education in South Africa, Alice set up the non-profit organisation ‘Unity for Tertiary Refugee Students’ intervening on behalf of students struggling to get into higher education institutions. Alice’s research examines “The right to Freedom of Movement in the context of Forced Migration”.

“Post 1994, the opening of South Africa’s borders to the world for the first time in decades resulted in increased migration flows to South Africa. Integration of these immigrants into local communities or townships proved to be a severe problem, given South Africa’s history of divisive policies, which had not been addressed. This only served to exacerbate existing tensions and stereotypes concerning ‘foreigners’. The fading post-election euphoria of the 1990s, in South Africa, characterised by growing inequality between the haves and the have-nots, high unemployment rates, high crime levels and other social economic ills produced a new wave of anti -black immigrant sentiment in South Africa, as black immigrants become the most convenient and reachable targets.

“However, in 2017, protesting locals were able to, for the first time in a long while, articulate the so called ‘targets of their protests’, by claiming to only being interested in ousting so called ‘illegal immigrants’, and not simply all foreigners. Although this in itself is less than desirable situation, as migration control falls within the ambit of the state, it is however a positive step towards the locals’ understanding of the different types of migrants and immigrants living in South Africa, and said migrants’ accompanying rights.”

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Dewa Mavhinga (LLM International Human Rights Law, University of Essex) is Senior Researcher for southern Africa at Human Rights Watch. Originally from Zimbabwe, Dewa is now based in Johannesburg due to political persecution. He has more than ten years’ experience of human rights research and advocacy.

“South African president Jacob Zuma condemned the xenophobic violence and called on citizens and non-nationals to exercise restraint, and unite against crime. But President Zuma’s condemnation of violence alone will do little to address the root causes of recurring xenophobia in South Africa. No one has been convicted over past outbreaks of xenophobic violence, including the Durban violence of April 2015 that displaced thousands of foreign nationals, and the 2008 attacks, which resulted in the deaths of more than 60 people across the country.

The media has a major role to play in avoiding perpetuating myths and stereotypes about foreign nationals being responsible for crimes, and also in presenting factual information about the contributions of foreign nationals to South Africa’s economy. Inflammatory public statements, such as those made by the Johannesburg mayor last December, should also be condemned. Those who cross the line and directly incite violence against migrants should be prosecuted.”

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Pila-Sande Mkuzo (LLB Law, University of Fort Hare) is an undergraduate law student and social activist who is particularly interested in using the law as a mechanism to protect the rights of children, immigrants and refugees.

“The basis of xenophobic attacks is primarily based on three factors; the perception that foreigners are perpetrators of crime, taking wealth that “rightfully belongs” to locals and, lastly, are exhausting the countries scarce resources. Since 1994, the government has had many opportunities to eradicate these myths by engaging with locals and explaining the benefits of having immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the country but have evidently failed to do so.”

Lilly Musaya (MPhil Development Studies, University of Cape Town) is a development specialist who aims to contribute to the social and economic transformation of sectors of society worst affected by structural inequalities.

“I believe that xenophobia in South Africa is a product of the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) prescribed by the IMF and World Bank for Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1980s. The sharp cuts in social programs as required by SAPs and other neoliberal policies have increased inequality gaps in Africa, with the poor falling into deep poverty. Globalisation has created “Global Cities’ where global economies are managed and coordinated, “demanding highly paid professionals”. The lifestyles of these professionals have created demand for service jobs, such as maids, waiters etc. These service jobs have attracted immigrants fleeing poverty in their own countries, thus growing the informal sector in global cities.

This has created conflict in the informal service sector between the poor South African population and African immigrants, resulting in Afrophobia. Unless formal arrangements are made with other African governments on exporting labour to South Africa, as was the case in the mid-1900s with the mining sector, these conflicts in the form of Afrophobic attacks will continue.”

Prof. Kealeboga J Maphunye (PhD Governmental Studies, University of Essex) is Research Professor and Chair at UNISA, and an expert in capacity building for electoral officials, and community engagement pertaining to election management in Africa. The extract below is taken from his paper titled ‘Afrophobia: Moral and Political Disguises‘:

“Violent attacks on nationals from other African states are a reality we have come to expect time-after-time in post-apartheid South Africa. We are once confronted with the ugly reality of barbaric and cruel acts of attacks on foreign internationals from other African states, which some have labelled “xenophobia” or “xenophobic attacks” while others term this “Afrophobia” (Black-on-Black conflict and violence directed at other Africans). We argue that this unsolicited characteristic of being African will never disappear unless the moral and political disguises thereof are dealt with radically and proactively. Generally, the subject of xenophobia is one which almost everyone has an opinion on – therefore this must be a subject close to every person’s heart, be this controversial or not.”