South Africa's Response to the Violence in Alex: Too Little Too Late

By Loren Landau · 19 May 2008

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More than a year ago, the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA) requested that the Human Rights Commission (HRC) host public hearings to hold leaders accountable for not addressing xenophobia, hate speech, violence, and threats to human dignity. But CoRMSA was told that the HRC’s agenda was set for the year and that they would see what they could do. Clearly they have not done enough.

Over the past week, South Africa has been shaken by anti-foreigner violence across Gauteng Province. These are but the most recent episodes in an accelerating series of attacks against foreigners living in South Africa. As embarrassed as many South Africans are by the violence, many others privately confess their belief that South Africa needs to get rid of its foreigners ‘by any means necessary’.

However, while many grievances over unemployment, housing, and services are real and must be addressed, redoubling efforts to do so in the wake of such violence sends a dangerous message: we will ignore your needs until you murder, rape and plunder.

The focus on immigration is a red herring. The horrific violence is not due to ever more Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Somalis and other non-citizens in the townships.  Foreigners have been in South Africa for decades. Nor is this an issue of foreigners stealing jobs or houses. All evidence shows that foreigners are generally good for South African business and, on balance, generate South African jobs.

Nor, as the UNHCR’s unhelpful comments would lead us to believe, is this is an issue of protecting the small number of refugees in South Africa while leaving the others to fend for themselves.  Regardless of immigration status, everyone has a right to life and dignity.

Let's be clear, stopping migration is neither possible nor is it a solution. So what should be done?

There are no easy answers, but the first step is a sustained and coordinated government responses involving the Presidency, Local Government, the HRC, Justice, Safety and Security, and Home Affairs.

Unfortunately, government has been slow to react.

When CoRMSA approached DPLG and other government departments, more than a year ago, to design a response; it was shuffled from one office to another with almost nothing getting done. Other calls to take a proactive response have been similarly ignored. Instead, officials have allowed the hatred to simmer, as foreigners become scapegoats for their failings.

At long last, government officials and civil society have condemned xenophobia as an ill akin to racism, sexism, and homophobia. But where were these strong statements two years ago when Somalis were being slaughtered in the Cape Flats? Or more recently when people were burned in their shacks outside of Pretoria? Or in any of more than a dozen attacks in the last twelve months.

That government officials did not respond sooner to stop the violence is bad enough. That in Olifantsfontein police arrested foreigners fleeing violence despite an order from the Minister of Home Affairs, only legitimises mob violence by helping criminals to complete their 'work'.

Minister Nqakula’s statement that there is no crisis because the violence is not happening around the country only illustrates how deep government has had its head in the sand.

South Africa continues to depend as it has for decades on the skills and labour of people from throughout the region. Let the latest killings and forced removals be a wake up call. We must act quickly to shift the locus of blame away from foreigners and build institutions that can channel frustration into public discussions and debate.

Rather than tacitly endorsing mob rule, the South African government must begin a frank, national discussion about why the poor remain impoverished and criminals continue to control our streets. This will mean exposing corruption among counsellors and senior officials. It also means accepting responsibility for much of what has gone wrong.

But we must not stop there. Local officials and police who have provoked these attacks by scapegoating foreigners—or have done nothing to forestall the violence—must be disciplined.

Indeed, unless we want to fight our political battles with firebombs, knives, and sjamboks instead of ballots, government must ensure that anyone preaching and practicing national, race, or colour discrimination is punished. Only then will all national groups be protected and will all who live in South Africa realise the transformation they so desperately need.

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