SA's response to xenophobic attacks 'was chaos'

The response to the May 2008 xenophobic attacks was “characterised by chaos”, according to a recent report by the Wits Forced Migration Studies Programme.

The report goes on to state that ‘given the likelihood of future displacement, it is concerning that much of the momentum and experience gained in the months following May already seems to have dissipated”.

The study, which was commissioned by Oxfam Great immediately after the violence that swept South Africa last winter, focussed on the reactions to the attacks in Gauteng and the Western Cape.

The 187-page report, entitled Humanitarian Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons in South Africa: Lessons Learned Following Attacks on Foreign Nationals in May 2008, says that communication and coordination between and within government and civil society after the attacks were most important, yet least effectively managed.

“There were several reasons for the high level of initial disorganisation”, according to the report. These were a lack of experience and established systems, lack of government leadership, fragmentation of civil society and confusion around the rights of the displaced.

The report said government failed on many levels. One of these was the provision of accommodation for the displaced. In the Centres of Safe Shelter people lived in highly cramped conditions, with inadequate sanitation facilities, a lack of warm water, bad refuse management and insufficient security.

One of the major problems at the shelters was a significant number of sexual attacks on women and girls by men within the camps and from outside. Girls would often have to walk far to get to a toilet or access medical facilities, often going through areas with little or no lighting, the report says.

Further failures were in health facilities, with local clinics and hospitals lacking capacity to deal with the aftermath.

There were also cases of police being unwilling to escort displaced people to their homes to retrieve their belongings and in some cases officers were ‘implicated in encouraging and inciting the violence”.

The Wits Forced Migration report aimed to evaluate the responses and provide detailed findings and recommendations for government, civil society, international NGOs and UN agencies for better future disaster management.

Tara Polzer, senior researcher for the Wits programme and co-author of the report, says that while various other agencies have done similar evaluations, they have been either on an internal level or between a small number of organisations.

“Our report really goes into detail,” says Polzer. “It is a wide evaluation that can be used as a handbook for the future, and is the only one that compares the responses in Gauteng and the Western Cape.”

Polzer hopes the programme can hold ongoing meetings with government and civil society and use the report as a reference to lead to effective improvements.

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