While not new, incidents of attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa including refugees and asylum seekers, mostly fellow Africans, continue to recur.
In 2008, 62 people lost their lives and up to 100,000 were displaced in the violence that ensued. Thabo Mbeki, the then president vowed “never again.”
Unfortunately, similar incidents have continued to be witnessed, primarily in the townships of uMlazi, Kwa Mashu, Ntuzuma and others in the Kwa Zulu Natal province.
In 2017, the Tshwane protests in Pretoria’s western inner-city led to the looting of Somali and Ethiopian-owned shops.
While one may be quick to casually dismiss South Africans as a generally xenophobic nation, a recent survey by the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation and Africa Barometer, a pan African, non- partisan research network in April, showed that 69 per cent of South Africans polled would not mind having an immigrant from the continent as a neighbour, about 62 per cent also believed that the government’s handling of immigration was “badly” or “very badly” done.
While most of these attacks have not at the onset, commenced as xenophobic in nature, it is their rapid bottom spiral into looting of foreign-owned shops in the inner cities or the townships and informal settlements as well as the reluctance by local, provincial and national authorities to prosecute and take a firm stand that has elicited sharp criticism from the international community and acted as a dog whistle for this scourge.
Equally, the perennial failure by authorities to address the underlying social-economic challenges facing the youth and other disenfranchised populations, more so those residing in the informal settlements and townships are often the initial triggers.
According to South Africa’s Statistician General, almost 4 out of 10 (39.6 per cent) young people in the job market did not have a job while only just under 30 per cent of the youths had jobs as at the first quarter of 2019.
According to the Quarterly Labour Force Survey, employment levels dipped by 237,000 jobs while unemployment rose by 62,000 as at the first quarter of 2019.
Rather than tackle these challenges, there has been a repeated rhetoric to scapegoat refugees, asylum seekers and migrants mostly from West Africa, the horn and Great Lakes, as the culprits while largely ignoring global quantitative evidence highlighting the role of migrants and refugees in job creation.
While the official government position regarding these attacks is that xenophobia is not present in South Africa and that ‘generalised criminality’ was to blame, statistics from the US Department of State in 2014, quoted in a UN Human Rights Committee report had put the cumulative figures of those killed since then at around 900.
During its previous review cycle on South Africa, the Committee has repeatedly called on South African authorities to “redouble their efforts to eradicate and prevent all forms of xenophobia” or “hold perpetrators of violence against foreign nationals accountable.”
A look at the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, xenophobia and Related Intolerance—the national blue print outlining the government’s plans to address racism and xenophobia in South Africa—shows the peripheral nature that xenophobia and attacks on foreign nationals of African descent has been relegated.
Little mention has been made of the government’s plan to address this menace since the Durban declaration at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, xenophobia and Related Intolerance in 2011.
While South Africa geared up to host regional leaders in Cape Town for the World Economic Forum, it is little wonder that heads of governments from Rwanda, Malawi, DR Congo and Burundi said they would not accompany their delegations, ironically, a stone’s throw away from Robben Island, where its most famous detainee, Madiba was incarcerated.
Perhaps, as Madiba famously said, “no one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, the can be taught to love. For love comes naturally to the human heart.”
Benjamin Kariuki is a senior regional forced migration analyst at The East African Centre for Forced Migration and Displacement.