Is xenophobia becoming part of the South African way of life?
19 June 2014
Is it ‘ordinary criminality' when South Africans necklace a Mozambican, or kill a Somali shopkeeper and loot his business? Or is it something more sinister, which ought to be addressed in a special way?
The South African government mostly dismisses xenophobic violence as ‘ordinary criminality.' Perhaps that explains why it now seems to be becoming routine in South Africa - almost accepted as an inevitable part of the South African way of life, like other violent crimes.
After the peak of violence in 2008 when the death of over 60 foreigners in a short period attracted national media and public attention, the issue has largely faded away. Many seminars and much other soul-searching took place back then, and organisations were formed to represent the interests of foreigners. One was the African Diaspora Forum.
Last week there was yet another vicious attack, this time by bands of local youths on Somali shopkeepers in Mamelodi East, Pretoria, in which two were killed and at least 100 men, women and children were forced to abandon their shops and homes to cram into a single house in Pretoria West.
The Somali victims complained that neither the Pretoria city council nor the national government came to their assistance, and no arrests had been made. ‘Instead, they chose to use the opportunity to verify their permits to see if they were legally in South Africa - begging the question: what is more urgent for the South African Police Service, saving lives or checking papers?' the African Diaspora Forum said.
It added that since the 2008 eruption of violence, more than 900 foreign nationals in South Africa had lost their lives in violent attacks, purely on the basis of their origin.
‘The apparent impunity with which perpetrators commit these acts of xenophobia and government's denial that these shameful events take place, or are xenophobic, could be why the attacks are multiplying in South Africa,' the Forum added.
Others agree that the authorities are largely turning a blind eye to xenophobia, largely because they deny that it is xenophobia. It seems that on the rare occasions when officialdom does comment on these attacks, it dismisses them as pure criminality that just happens to be directed at foreigners.
In an article that appeared in the Saturday Star in March, Loren Landau of the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand noted that then home affairs minister, Naledi Pandor, had said in a public speech on 23 January: ‘I do not believe we are, as a people, xenophobic. In fact, our statistics on asylum seekers and registration of refugees indicate South Africa is fully responsive to its human rights obligations.'
Landau found this an unconvincing argument given the hard line that Home Affairs was taking on foreigners. He added that global comparative surveys consistently ranked South Africans as the most hostile to people from other lands.
Listing the many casualties - at least 120 foreign nationals killed in 2011, 140 in 2012 and over 150 last year - he remarked pertinently: ‘It is surely a sign of our strange times when officials dismiss xenophobic violence as "ordinary criminality."' Such denials made it almost impossible to prevent further xenophobia, Landau said. There was some recognition of the problem, but the efforts to combat it were half-hearted, he suggested.
This denialism goes a long way back. When experts of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) warned in 2007 that xenophobia was on the rise in South Africa, Mbeki, typically, denied it before his African peers. Within months, xenophobia had exploded in major violence.
There was a slight improvement in Addis Ababa in January this year, when President Jacob Zuma presented his peers with the third progress report by South Africa on its implementation of the national programme of action to address shortcomings in its governance identified by the APRM. Zuma acknowledged that there were still challenges in ‘consolidating democracy and political governance, which included service delivery challenges, instances of xenophobia and violence against women and children.' But what is the government doing about it?
Not enough, apparently, because it repeatedly fails to publicly acknowledge the problem and initiate real measures to deal with it. Where are the anti-xenophobia campaigns; the awareness campaigns; the inclusion in school curriculums, educating children about the need to embrace diversity, analysts ask? And is xenophobia no longer considered newsworthy enough to warrant more than the occasional short report about an attack on a Somali shop, for instance?
Where are the special features and seminars and the like that we saw after the 2008 spike in xenophobic violence, one analyst asked. ‘Are the media, like everyone else, suffering from xenophobia fatigue because the problem just won't go away?' Other analysts are more sympathetic to the government's plight, noting that xenophobia is also resurging among right-wingers in Europe and can also be found, though not necessarily in such violent forms, in other southern African countries.
They add that if xenophobia, and particularly xenophobic violence, is worse in South Africa than in neighbouring countries, this might well be because, as the richest country, South Africa is attracting a greater number of foreigners.
They also suggest that the problem has much to do with incompetence; that the stringent new regulations introduced by Home Affairs this month, for example, mask its inability to do much about the problem on the ground. Under the new rules, individuals are barred from using agents for visa applications; a change of status or renewing a visa has to be done in the country of residence - not in South Africa; and where individuals could be fined in the past for overstaying their visa period, they will now be declared as undesirable.
Further, corporate visas can only be issued to South African corporate applicants if they can demonstrate a need to employ such foreigners, and they cannot employ non-nationals for a period of more than three years. This restriction on the ability to import skills has important economic implications - and foreign policy implications.
The critical APRM report of 2007 was an important warning that the continent is very aware of xenophobia and that it has consequences not only for the foreigners targeted, but also for South Africa itself. As Michael Spicer, former Anglo American director and former CEO of Business Leadership South Africa, warned in a speech at the SA Institute of International Affairs last week, xenophobia, most of which is directed at other Africans, is undermining South Africa's claim to leadership in Africa.
Spicer saw xenophobia as just one of the many contradictions between the government's ‘Africa first' policy and the reality on the ground, which also hamper the country's economic advance into its natural hinterland. The practical problems that the government faces are clearly aggravated by the fact that it is balking at the first hurdle, which is to admit that the problem exists.
One suspects that the government does not see it as being in its political interests to acknowledge xenophobia, because it contradicts the image of a country that embraces diversity and welcomes especially Africans. In fact, one should say, it goes to the very essence of what the ruling ANC is all about, since its identity is so closely bound to the struggle against racism.
And so acknowledging xenophobia - which is after all a very close relative of racism, especially when foreign Africans are the main target - might not only jeopardise the ruling party's identity, but also deprive it of a very handy weapon in its own arsenal: the charge of ‘racism' - which it often unholsters when other arguments fail in domestic political disputes.
Peter Fabricius is Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa. This article first appeared in ISS Weekly, the online newsletter of the Institute for Security Studies.
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