FOREIGN nationals resident in South Africa have suffered a spate of xenophobic attacks in the past months that have sadly left scores dead. The message appears to be: you’re not welcome and we’ll make damned sure you know that.
This seemingly inexplicable attitude was the subject of debate at Mail & Guardian Africa’s latest African Truth Dialogue session hosted at Wits University in Johannesburg on March 3.
At the heart of the issue lies the increased violent attacks against foreign nationals, predominantly - but not exclusively - foreign shopkeepers from as wide afield as Somalia, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China. Tempers flared in January this year when a number of shopkeepers in Soweto were evicted, killed and their stores looted, with regular reports since of similar incidents.
This follows on the outbreak of violence in 2008 when more than 60 foreigners were killed in attacks across the country’s townships.
At the time the government and police stepped in and condemned the attacks. A task force was established to investigate these incidents, but that was disbanded shortly after and since then not one individual has been convicted of these crimes.
The response to the latest attacks has been even more muted - laughable, many say.
This analysis is based on the Minister of Small Business Development, Lindiwe Zulu, fronting up the government response by insisting that it was incumbent on foreign shopkeepers “to share their trade secrets”. The argument evidently being that they were depriving South Africans by unfair means of the opportunity to trade in their own back yard, and therefore the architects of their own fate.
The provincial head of community safety, Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane, also noted in the days after the Soweto attacks that the actions were criminal in nature and would not be declared xenophobic attacks.
“I’ve been very surprised that most of the messages coming from the government have come from the minister of small business, as if this is a business issue,” commented panel member Richard Ots, Chief of Mission in South Africa for the International Organisation for Migration.
“I’m surprised we don’t hear messages from justice or home affairs; those are the most appropriate channels to transmit the opinion of the government on this. The government line has been this is not an issue of xenophobia, but one of crime to which migrants have been more exposed.”
Clementine Awu Nkweta-Salami, the UNHCR’s regional representative, said the targeting of refugees and asylum seekers was particularly marked.
“We would like to see is leaders speak out a bit more on the issue,” she said. “When attacks take place they need to come out to express themselves in a way that is clear to communities that such behaviour is not acceptable and is not part of the South Africa we would like to have. I think the opportunities are many, but unfortunately they not happening as often as we would like.”
The root of the problem was best highlighted by Nigeria’s Consulate General in South Africa, Ambassador Uche Ajulu-Okeke, who noted that one could not ignore the country’s history of apartheid.
She argued that the institutionalised exclusion of black South Africans combined with national developmental efforts since democracy had the unanticipated consequence of breeding “hostility, exclusivist behaviour and anti-foreign sentiments”.
“The portrayal of illegal immigrants as a national security threat and the unfounded assumption of the inherent criminality of fellow Africans is a pointer to widely suspected official xenophobia in which African immigrants are targets for regular harassment and extortion,” she added.
Marc Gbaffou, chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum, supported this view of outright hostility by officialdom in various government departments.
“From 2008 up until today, we can clearly state that xenophobia has been entrenched in state institutions, because the response you get from officials is clearly a xenophobic attitude,” he said.
He singled out agencies such as home affairs that handles visas, identity documents and refugee and asylum applications, the tax authorities and city departments.
This inward-looking attitude is evident in changes to South Africa’s immigration regulations that were amended in 2014, placing more stringent restrictions on people visiting or wishing to migrate to the country.
These rules, one audience member suggested, effectively lay the blame for problems in the country on the influx of foreigners.
Ambassador Ajufu-Okeke took up this point, saying that South Africa risked alienating itself through exclusionary tactics. She contrasted this approach to that in West Africa that has been given new meaning through the Free Movement Protocol in effect across Ecowas countries.
“The economies are so vibrant, and you need to introduce some element of vibrancy. Because what has happened, although you have shared appetite, your country is still segmented and it’s not good for your integration.
“You need to get it together and to learn there is vibrancy in diversity. You need to try it,” she said.
Two recurring themes throughout the discussion centred on the lack of leadership - both national and at community level - and the need to inculcate a greater sense of South Africa’s place on the continent.
Jean-Pierre Misago, a researcher with Wits University’s African Centre for Migration, said that the lack of concrete measures since the 2008 attacks practically guaranteed that such incidents would reoccur.
These interventions had tended toward awareness and education campaigns, he said, which made the incorrect assumption that a change in attitude would prevent violence.
“We haven’t been able to engage the government in a way that elicits its commitment. We haven’t been able to bring government to the table to pay a role in stemming the violence. No amount of panel discussions or awareness campaigns can make an impact.
“Government is a key factor and we have to find ways of engaging with the government to ensure it plays its role. And civil society doesn’t seem to have the political muscle too ensure that government fulfills its protection mandate and hold it accountable when it fails to do so.”
He added that research had shown that a key factor in the presence or absence of violence in townships and informal settlements was community leadership. In instances where violence was present, this could be ascribed to community leaders being either directly involved or complicit in organising violence, or unable to prevent this because of weak leadership.
While Misago dismissed the efficacy of awareness and education programmes, UNICEF education specialist Adries Viviers advocated the introduction of African studies from the earliest stages to promote a sense of place and understanding among South Africa’s youth.
Ambassador Ajufu-Okeke echoed this sentiment, suggesting a radical review of the school curriculum that included the histories of various countries “to keep the populations in tune with the times”.
As noted by Misago, panel discussions such as this may raise the issues to a new level, but without concrete action and reaction from national leaders the lives of foreigners will continue to be at risk. The question is whether that leadership exists and whether they have the motivation to stamp out this rot.