Madhura Chakraborty, Calcutta Research Group. She has been working on migrant labourers since 2011.
Since 1994--the end of the Apartheid in South Africa--millions of migrants, particularly from neighbouring poorer African countries have been coming to the country to seek work and in hope of a better life. The deadly attacks across urban centres in South Africa against migrants, primarily of African origins but also from South Asian countries, that occurred in early 2015 started in Durban and then spread to parts of Johannesburg. These xenophobic attacks, according to Al Jazeera[i] are a result of the rising unemployment rates in South Africa where labour migrants are seen as a contributory cause. According projections by the ILO[ii] the country ranks as the eighth worst in terms of high unemployment rates. The attacks allegedly started after a comment by the Zulu King, Goodwill Zelithini who apparently asked the migrants to ‘pack their bags and leave’[iii] which he later denied having made. In Johannesburg text messages circulating via the social networks warmed foreigners to heed the Zulu King’s call to leave South Africa[iv].
Businesses by migrants were attacked, looted and vandalised leading to many migrants fleeing their homes. The Star, a leading daily from South Africa reports that violent mobs even turned on journalists in some cases in Johannesburg. Thousands of migrants fled their homes and took up shelter in camps and shops owned by the migrants remained closed. The Star quotes Police Commissioner General Riah Phiyega as saying the violence against foreign migrants was a criminal activity. The Star[v] quotes President Zuma who blamed criminality as opposed to xenophobia:
“I don’t think we should use the simple word because it is easy to use excessively. It gives a wrong impression that South Africans are xenophobic. We are not,” said Zuma.
In the meanwhile as of 26 April the government operated camp in Johannesburg[vi] to shelter the displaced migrants were shut down. The camp which started with only four hundred displaced people on 16 April saw the residents’ numbers swell to over a thousand. The municipality officials presiding over camp management were assured of there being no danger in going back to the communities before closing the camp. In Durban hundreds of asylum seekers and migrants are still in camps even as the government pushes to close the camps[vii].
Meanwhile the police along with the South African Defence Force started a massive stop and search programme in Johannesburg to arrest undocumented migrants in which at least fifty were arrested as of 28 April[viii]. Lieutenant-Colonel Lungelo Dlamini, Gauteng police spokesperson, was quoted as saying:
It was a stop-and-search operation... It was a normal, crime-prevention operation.
Al Jazeera dubs the operation as one trying to end ‘anti-immigration unrest’.
As a direct result of the violence against migrants, diplomatic relations with some neighbouring countries have worsened. Nigeria decided to take back the envoys from Pretoria[ix] while both Zimbabwe and Malawi governments arranged transportation for their citizens from South Africa and Mozambique along with the other nations joined in publicly condemning these attacks.
In South Africa itself thousands marched in anti xenophobic rallies in both Durban and Johannesburg. Ranabir Samaddar, the Director of Calcutta Research Group, who was visiting Johannesburg at the time, was interviewed on Power FM 98.7. He was quoted raising the question: “You have to ask yourself can any country do without migrant workers?”
This remains a crucial question in today’s world of tightening border controls and securitization where the ‘other’ is often working-class, labour migrants who are blamed for all ills of the host country.