‘Prophets of doom’ warned of more xenophobic attacks in S. Africa; sadly they were right

The “Afrophobia” hypothesis doesn’t hold. Victims are mostly from other African countries but Pakistanis, Bangladeshi, Chinese often targeted too.

VIOLENT attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa in May 2008 were followed by public and official condemnation and promises of  “never-again”.

Realising that these pronouncements were not followed by concrete preventive measures, our research evidence suggested such violence was likely to reoccur. We, together with those who shared our predictions, were branded “prophets of doom”, hell-bent on tarnishing the image of the beautiful rainbow nation. How we wished our predictions were false!

I draw my reflections upon our decade long research into xenophobia in South Africa.

Violence against foreign nationals did not start or end in May 2008.

Despite its widespread usage, xenophobia remains an ambiguous and contested term in popular, policy and scholarly debates.

Some speak of it as intense dislike, hatred or fear of others. Still others only recognise it when it manifests as visible hostility towards strangers and or that which is deemed foreign.

There is however a need to make a conceptual distinction between xenophobia (as a feeling or negative attitudes towards “outsiders” to a community, a country, e.t.c.) and its different forms of manifestation (overt discriminatory behavior or practices including xenophobic violence). 

Attitudes and behaviour are not the same thing. However, in South Africa, like in many other countries, xenophobia commonly refers to both attitudes and behaviour, and this conceptual confusion often leads to responses/interventions with limited internal logic or rationality.

There is also need to get some clarity on whether previous violent attacks on foreign nationals or what we are seeing currently in Soweto and other areas across the country is xenophobia or criminality. My question here is why many think it has to be either or? Violence can be both xenophobic and criminal.

Xenophobia as hate crime

Xenophobic violence is a form of hate crime. A criminal act motivated by negative attitudes or resentment towards the target group. Not every robbery or criminal act by local on foreigner is xenophobic, but when collective violence is specifically targeted at members of a certain group because of their national origin or because they are perceived as outsiders, not to belong; and when perpetrators make it clear their intention is to drive that group out their community or country; there is no doubt that violence is xenophobic.

Regarding the nature, trends and dimensions, xenophobia is a global phenomenon (i.e. not unique to South Africa).

It is a reality in many other African countries, in Europe, in America, in Asia, in rich as well as in poor countries.  Xenophobia and its different manifestations (including amongst others, selective enforcement of bylaws, harassments and arbitrary arrests, political scapegoating, denied access to services, and of course public violence) are an ongoing serious threat to lives and livelihoods of those deemed “outsiders” in many countries across the globe.

In South Africa, since the 1990s, studies consistently document strong negative sentiments and hostility towards foreigners amongst the general public and government officials. A recent survey by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO) indicates that xenophobic sentiments were on the rise in Gauteng Province.

In particularly xenophobic violence continues to claim a significant number of lives and lost livelihoods.

Recent Soweto incidents are an example. Violence is now spread across all nine provinces with the Gauteng Province being the worst affected at the moment. Not surprisingly, migrants living in poor townships and informal settlements are the most affected. Currently, migrants operating small businesses in townships and informal settlements are the main target.

“Afrophobia” doesn’t pass test

Note it is not just Africans. The “Afrophobia” hypothesis does not pass the empirical test. It is true that victims are mostly immigrants from other African countries but also Pakistanis, Bangladeshi, Chinese are often targeted. It appears the target of the attacks are those migrants (irrespective of their nationality) perceived to represent a threat to a certain powerful interest group in a given locality.

Who are the perpetrators of xenophobic behaviour? Almost everyone! Ordinary residents, community leaders, public servants, political officials, bureaucrats, law enforcement agents depending on the behaviour in question. 

Government officials and political leaders often make xenophobic pronouncements that shape or reinforce public opinion and behaviour; public servants deny “outsiders” access to services they are entitled to; law enforcement agents are particularly known for extortion, harassment, arbitrary detention and selective enforcement of the laws while ordinary members of the public often engage in mass xenophobic violence.

With regard to causal factors, there exist competing accounts on the causes of xenophobia (on negative attitudes) in South Africa.  Most analysts agree however that xenophobia in South Africa has social and institutional origins:  the legacy of the politics of exclusion continues to shape concepts of rights to belonging, space and opportunities until today.

People mobility has long been and still is considered a threat to local residents’ lives, and socio-economic orders.

Research into the causes of xenophobic violence debunks most popular explanations and common hypotheses that emphasise factors such as poverty, inequality, unemployment. These matter but they are not the necessary and sufficient conditions for violence. If they were, we would be seeing violence in almost all townships and informal settlements where these conditions are common.

In addition, research evidence shows that it not necessarily the most objectively poor who attack foreign nationals. Soweto is definitely not the poorest township in the country. I tend to agree with those who argue that violence requires energy and resources the poor may not have! 

‘Politics by other means’

Over the years, research evidence consistently shows one key factor that explains the absence or occurrence of violence in areas with similar socio-economic conditions is: community leadership. We have violence in areas where the community leadership is either directly involved in organising violence, complicit with instigators, or weak in which case leadership and authority is “hijacked” by self-elected violent leadership groups. As one of our research respondents told us: “nothing happens in our communities if leaders do not allow it.”

Violence against foreign nationals is “politics by other means”: there are political and economic incentives behind what is perceived to be irrational and spontaneous outbursts. Organising violent attacks on foreign nationals or any group for that matter is more often than not a rational decision made after carefully considering costs and benefits. 

Usually instigators decide to carry out their plans when benefits are perceived to outweigh the costs.  Removing these incentives/benefits (by for example holding these instigators accountable) could go a long in discouraging this behaviour.

Note also that the causes of xenophobia and xenophobic violence are not necessarily the same. Attitudes are not always a good predictor of behaviour. Violence is not a quantitative degree of a conflict! Violence is not an automatic outgrowth of an existing conflict!

Responses and interventions

While during the May 2008 violence, government created specialised units, ad-hoc committees and task teams in parliament, government departments, police, provincial and local governments, and while some in government expressed genuine concern, the overall government response to xenophobia and related violence in South Africa has been characterized by “denialism” and dominated by the “just crime/not xenophobia” discourse that resulted not surprisingly in “no need” for specific interventions.

Ever since, there has been no official national, policy level response; these task teams have been dismantled or are no longer functional. After the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) held in Durban in 2001, government started drafting a ”National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance”. More than a decade later, the draft or the plan has not been finalised.

We need to recognise that there are on-going efforts by different government departments (such as the Department of Home Affairs’ diversity programme, Department of Justice’s action plan, and the Department of Arts and Culture’s social cohesion), but these are yet to translate into an overall concrete consolidated action plan. There is a noticeable lack of sustained political will.

Civil society

Since the violence in May 2008, an increasing number of local civil society and international organizations have been involved, not only in providing humanitarian assistance to the victims of the violence but also in interventions to prevent the reoccurrence of such a violent conflict and promote social cohesion. While there is no way of knowing what would have happened if these interventions had not been implemented, on-going violence is evidence that interventions have not been fully effective.

The civil society’s collective failure has been the lack of political muscle required to ensure government fulfills its mandate to protect all country’s residents or hold it accountable when it fails.

As an example, in 2010, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) released a report in which it made specific recommendations to government departments on how to address violence against foreign nationals and protect their rights. The recommendations were ignored, and nothing happened.

Another factor that may explain the failure of civil society interventions is the almost exclusive focus on attitudes, neglecting factors and motivations that help translate attitudes into behaviour. 

From the Roll Back Xenophobia Campaign (by SAHRC, UNHCR, the Netherdutch Reformed Church of South Africa, NRCA) in 1998, to the “ONE” Movement (by IOM), to social cohesion community dialogues (by the Nelson Mandela Foundation), the focus has been on education and awareness campaigns targeting communities in affected areas.

There are two main issues with this approach: first, it is based on unfounded assumptions that awareness campaigns aimed at changing attitudes will prevent violence. To be effective in preventing violence, awareness campaigns should go in hand with interventions targeting xenophobic behaviour. Second, by prioritising communities, the approach seems to neglect the key actor: government.

More efforts should be directed at making the government fulfill its mandate to protect the country’s residents. Given the level of denialism, new rules of engagement need to be applied. Government is the key actor, all others can do is to provide support.

With regard to police response, we have observed some improvement compared to 2008. There were instances of rapid and decisive response that saved many threatened lives and livelihoods. We have witnessed greater collaboration with civil society particularly, UNHCR and its partners. 

That said, we also note that there are still a number of fundamental problems. For example, the main approach remains evacuation (which is exactly what instigators want; expelling foreigners from communities) instead of protecting people’s lives and livelihoods; we still see TV images where police officers standby while violence and looting are taking place; We have seen some police officers involved in looting. 

Crime and protection

These may be just a few officers but their action and/or inaction send out a wrong message. Like in the past, there are still not thorough investigations to identify the instigators and hold them accountable and still no response to threats of violence and eviction notices.

Community response: There have been a few instances of community solidarity and resistance to violence but in most cases, in the absence and effective government and civil society response, communities have resorted to unlawful compromises: price fixing, limiting number of foreign-owned businesses; dropping charges against perpetrators; payment of protection fees to local leaders and mobs; and acquiring (by foreigners) of illegal fire arms for self-protection.

We all need to realise that this on-going violent exclusion not just about getting rid of foreign nationals; 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.

•The author is a researcher at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), University of the Witwatersrand. This is edited from his keynote speech on the dialogue, “Latest wave of xenophobic violence in South Africa” organised by the Mail & Guardian Africa and University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, on March 3, 2015.

(Author email: Jean.Misago@wits.ac.za).

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