Xenophobia and the World Cup

For many people in South Africa the end of the World Cup will mean more than packing away their makarapas and vuvuzelas, and returning to the old routine.

  • Special Report: Xenophobia: The reality
  • While the nation may have rallied behind Ghana as “Africa’s hope”, a different group of people fear that come July 12 that solidarity may have withered away.

    22-year-old sports reporter Sowda is a refugee from the war in Somalia, having fled her country after threats from extremists who believe women should not be journalists. “They said I should choose between my profession and my life. I chose my profession and I left my home.” She now lives in Mayfair, Johannesburg and shares her concerns about the threat of renewed xenophobia.

    Refugees and migrants dread the end of the World Cup, fearing they will see a repeat of the events of May 2008 when xenophobic violence across the country left 62 people dead, more than 100 000 displaced and millions of rands’ worth of property looted or destroyed. The emotional toll cannot be counted.

    The threats of an upsurge of xenophobia after the football tourists and camera crews have gone home are well documented. Foreign nationals report that they are being openly threatened not just on the streets and at the taxi ranks but also — and more worryingly — by public servants such as nurses and police officers. They tell how they have been evicted, after their landlords have been threatened and told to “get rid of the makwerekwere“. Many report that they have been fired from restaurants and construction sites after their employers were told that hiring foreigners would identify them and their property as “legitimate targets” when attacks begin afresh. Somali people are selling their shops in the townships and moving into the city, and reports from the Musina border post indicate that Zimbabweans are sending their moveable property home.

    This climate of threat and intimidation is a form of violence in and of itself.

    The public perception of an “outbreak” of xenophobia is somewhat mistaken — xenophobic attacks have never stopped, and research by the Forced Migration Studies Programme (FMSP) at Wits University shows that in the past two years there has been at least one attack a month on groups of foreign nationals.

    The causes of xenophobia are varied, and unfortunately there is no “quick fix” solution. Research by the FMSP shows that contrary to the popular view, such violence is not driven by poverty. In fact the attacks did not occur in areas with the highest percentage of people living in absolute poverty, or with the highest rates of unemployment or with the highest percentage of foreign residents.

    The triggers appear in the main to be aspiring local leaders mobilising residents to “drive out” foreign nationals in order to boost their own political power. FMSP’s research also found that the violence was often orchestrated by business owners who wished to drive out their competitors — who often happened to be successful foreign entrepreneurs.

    These factors are compounded by South Africa’s culture of impunity and the fact that there seem to be very few (if any) consequences for crimes against foreign nationals.

    Compare and contrast the fast-track arrests, convictions and sentencing in the special World Cup courts, with the consequences for the perpetrators of the 2008 attacks.

    There have been heartening signs recently that some communities will not tolerate a recurrence of the violence, such as in Khayelitsha where residents last week stood up for foreigners who were being attacked.

    The example set by these brave people should make us ask ourselves what kind of country we wish to live in, and whether we will allow narrow self interest and bigotry to reduce us to a state where kragdadigheid is the order of the day.

    Long-term measures such as education on tolerance for diversity in schools and building legitimate and accountable local governance are vital.

    But in the short term, South Africans need to put pressure on their elected representatives to ensure that xenophobia is dealt with swiftly and decisively.

    We also need to remind them — and ourselves — that our Constitution provides the right to equal protection of the law and freedom from all forms of violence for all people — not just citizens.

    Nicole Johnston is the Regional Media and Communications Coordinator for Oxfam Southern Africa

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    Nicole Johnston
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