Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Situation of Xenophobic Violence in South Africa

Debdatta Chowdhury

Xenophobia or the ‘fear of foreigner’ has been a pressing issue globally and is manifest in the mass scale violence amounting to genocide. A number of communities, all over the world have been victims to such violence, South African blacks being one of the worst examples. The neo-liberal economic policies, in South Africa, are much to be blamed for this. Neo-liberal policies, in South Africa, both the ‘roll-back’ and ‘roll-out’ varieties, have greatly diminished the rights of ordinary citizens, particularly low-income people and other disadvantaged groups, such as immigrants, racial minorities, and single mothers. Privatization has undermined worker’s economic rights. South African black workers have to struggle hard for collective bargaining rights, civil and political rights. Despite the end of Apartheid rule, South Africa’s neo-liberal model of economic development frustrates black worker’s long-standing dream of substantive equality and social rights. The border policies in South Africa are a culmination of, or rather the failure of this neo-liberal policy. The border policies are based on certain myths, obviously regarding the migrants from the surrounding areas of South Africa, who ‘pour into’ South Africa. The myths that form the base of the border policy are:

·Every poor and desperate person on the African continent wants to get into South Africa
·People are jumping the borders in their millions using whatever means necessary to get into South Africa
·People from the region "flood" to South Africa to find work or to use health and other social services
·Cross-border migration has largely negative implications for the source country
·Governments and people in the region expect South Africa to throw opens its doors to whoever wants to enter
·Conditions in the region are only going to get worse and unless South Africa takes a tougher stand on immigration policy the country will continue to be inundated with "illegal aliens".

Border policies founded on myths are bound to be disadvantageous to one or the other communities, in South Africa’s case the victimized community being the ‘blacks’. The attempt at compensating for the failure of the much-hyped neo-liberal economic policies in South Africa manifested itself in the shift of focus from the failed economy to a ‘structured’ border-crisis. And who else, but the ‘blacks’ were the tailor-made victims. It is not to say that border crisis is a non-existent problem. But border-control is not the solution, least the sole one, for curbing the racial violence that is a regular affair in South Africa. Equality—social, political, economic and cultural, is the biggest absence as well the need of the hour. At a time when international laws on human rights and anti-racist movements are being hailed as the scepters of the rule of humanity, it is a matter of utter shame that incidents of xenophobic violence, resulting from failing policies, still manage to occupy newspaper columns almost everyday. As an institute working on issues as xenophobia, racism, forced migration and international laws on refugees and human rights, we at CRG thought it necessary to post this review followed by the press release of the situation of xenophobic violence in South Africa, albeit with its biases. Your comments are welcome.

Press Release


Thursday, 22 May 2008 – South Africa is currently experiencing xenophobic violence on an unprecedented scale. Today’s Presidential decision to call on the armed forces shows that these events will lead to dramatic changes in South Africa’s social and political landscape. In this context, it is vital that we base policy discussion on fact, and sound research, not speculation and myth.

‘Totally Unexpected Attacks’

Various commentators have reacted to the recent high intensity attacks on non-nationals as if they were a new and surprising phenomenon. This view is epitomized by Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad’s statement that ‘I believe it is a matter of record that the police, and reservists, in very difficult circumstances have attempted to do their best in dealing with what has been a totally unexpected phenomenon in our country.’

These remarks should be questioned in light of the well documented national trend towards organized, mass violence against foreigners in townships and informal settlements. The media has consistently drawn our attention to this ongoing problem. Organizations such as the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa have long called on government to adopt a more pro-active response. It is not the time for ‘I told you so’ accusations. Nevertheless, it is misleading and unhelpful to represent the current violence in Gauteng as isolated and unexpected. These statements divert our attention from the failure of government to respond to long-standing and clear indications of a serious problem.

‘The Third Force’

The shocking nature and scale of recent violence have given rise to widespread speculation about the involvement of a so-called ‘Third Force’. This reference to clandestine and counter-revolutionary militias of the Apartheid era has been used to suggest significant levels of coordination and orchestration behind the attacks. Such claims have been attributed to members of the NEC, Cabinet and local government.

These discussions cloud and sensationalize the true nature of recent violence. Violence against foreigners has usually been orchestrated locally by groups and individuals seeking to capitalize on residents’ fears and suspicions. SAHRC’s contention is that there is a ‘copy-cat‘ dynamic at play, where groups and individuals mimic counterparts in other areas of the province or country. Subsequent investigations may reveal instances of co-operation and co-ordination between the various sites where violence has occurred. However, if there is evidence to date that these events were planned and orchestrated by a single organization or individual, they need to be substantiated and made public. If not, the ‘Third Force’ reference simply detracts our attention from the serious inter-ethnic and inter-communal animosities and grievances that have caused violence across the country.

‘Border Control is the Solution’

Many of the perpetrators of the violence have explained their actions as attempts to compensate for the lack of border control. Some commentators have picked up on this concern to suggest that incompetent border management has encouraged recent violence. For example, the Institute of Race Relations argues: ‘Poor policy decisions and simple incompetence in border policing…contributed directly to the presence of a large illegal population in South Africa. Without adequate legal standing in the community, these people became easy or soft targets for mob violence.’

This claim, which is supported by a call for additional border controls, papers over the fact that South Africa has been pouring huge amounts of additional resources into border control over the past few years, particularly on the Limpopo River. In 2006 [the latest figures] South Africa deported over a quarter of a million people, a hike of more than 56,000 on the previous year. This costs taxpayers a lot of money. And yet, there are large numbers of people classified as illegal living in South Africa. The problem is not that South Africa has not been patrolling borders and arresting ‘illegals’; it is that these sorts of policy responses just don’t work. Instead, what should be attempted is to integrate non-nationals into South Africa, beginning with the idea of providing some form of temporary protection to Zimbabwean nationals fleeing the crisis in their country.

‘Helping the South Africans’

Many people have argued that the reason why we have to end xenophobic violence has to do with the repayment for debts incurred to frontline states during the Apartheid era.

While it is true that South Africa owes much to its neighbours, the logic of this argument tacitly endorses xenophobia against those who do not come from Southern Africa. Although many of the recent attacks have targeted Zimbabweans and Mozambicans, previous violence have claimed victims from Somalia, Pakistan, China, and elsewhere in the world. The why they should be attacked is not because they once helped South Africa. Rather, it is because they are part of the same society and that constitutional and moral commitments have been made to protect the rights of all who live in South Africa regardless of race, religion, or nationality.

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