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Local leaders ‘behind xenophobic attacks’

A report released on Wednesday on the xenophobic attacks that erupted in Alexandra in May 2008 has established that most of the violence was organised by local leaders and groups who wanted to further their own political and economic interests.

The study, conducted by the Forced Migration Studies Programme at Wits University, found little evidence to support claims that a ”third force”, poor border control, changes in political leadership or rising food and commodity prices caused the outbreak of xenophobic violence.

Instead, researchers found that the violence is rooted in the ”micro politics” of South African townships and informal settlements. Sixty-two people, including 21 South Africans, were killed in the attacks and more than 150 000 were displaced.

The report, entitled Towards Tolerance, Law and Dignity: Addressing Violence against Foreign Nationals in South Africa, was commissioned by the International Organisation of Migration. It examined incidents of xenophobic violence between January 2007 and June 2008 across seven sites in Gauteng and the Western Cape. Respondents included township residents, non-nationals, community leaders, government officials, police and civil society.

Dispelling theories
The report argued that while anti-foreigner attitudes triggered the xenophobic violence of May 2008, it does not explain why attacks occurred in some areas and not in others. It found that a combination of factors — ethnic tensions, high crime rates, organised violence and a lack of institutionalised leadership — contributed to the xenophobic attacks, but no single factor could be isolated as the cause.

Researchers identified similar institutional and socio-economic factors that helped translate anti-foreigner sentiment into full-blown xenophobic violence in the affected townships.

These included:

  • Institutionalised xenophobic attitudes and practices that continue to dehumanise foreign nationals in the country;
  • Political leadership vacuums and competition in community leadership that allow the emergence of parallel and self-serving leadership structures;
  • A lack of trusted, prompt and effective conflict-resolution mechanisms that leads to vigilantism and mob justice;
  • A culture of impunity with regard to public violence in general and xenophobic violence in particular, that continues to encourage the ill-intentioned to attack non-nationals for a variety of reasons;
  • Limited knowledge among communities and leaders of the country’s immigration laws and policies that leads to criminalisation of foreign nationals; and
  • Local authorities’ support and enforcement of illegal practices that, while violating the law, reinforce communities’ resentment towards non-compliant foreign nationals.

Culpability
The report slammed local leaders and authorities, saying that ”community leaders and the local government did nothing to prevent or stop the violence”. Instead, the study found that some were directly involved in the attacks, while others were reluctant to assist foreigners for fear of losing legitimacy or positions in the 2009 elections.

Respondents were critical of the police, saying they were delayed and ineffective in dealing with the attacks. Many were convinced that some police officers supported or at least passively tolerated the violence due to their own anti-foreigner sentiments.

The report warns against political leaders making spurious claims about foreigners that incite xenophobic attacks. It highlights the danger of political parties campaigning on an anti-foreigner ticket, which serves only to exacerbate some South Africans’ prejudice against non-nationals.

The study also found evidence that the media played a significant role in triggering violence in certain areas. Respondents believed media images and accounts of attacks and shop looting encouraged community members and criminals to emulate such behaviour.

Recommendations
The report called for cooperation between government, civil society and international organisations to address leadership vacuums and reduce the risk of further xenophobic attacks.

Its recommendations to reduce and tackle xenophobic violence include:

  • The development of an ”early conflict and disaster warning and management system” to monitor and deal with xenophobic violence;
  • Setting up an official commission of inquiry to identify guilty parties;
  • Prosecution of community leaders and individuals involved in the xenophobic attacks;
  • Reform of local governance and leadership structures to protect the rights of all residents and provide legal support for marginalised groups;
  • Education and awareness of the country’s laws, and immigrants’ rights; and
  • More avenues of legal migration to reduce corruption, labour exploitation and other practices that disadvantage South Africans and foreigners.

The study emphasised the need for further and continuous research into anti-immigrant violence, and called on the media to be accurate and responsible in its reporting of migrants and migration.

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Qudsiya Karrim
Qudsiya Karrim is deputy online manager of mg.co.za. She was previously editor of Voices of Africa, the M&G’s blogging platform. She’s also a journalist, social media junkie, mom, bibliophile, wishful photographer and wannabe chef. She has a love-hate relationship with the semicolon and doesn’t care much for people who tYp3 LiK3 ThI$. World peace is important to her, but not as much as a 24/7 internet connection.

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