Attacks on migrants show failure to stem racial tension

An outbreak of violence against foreign nationals in South Africa has highlighted the government’s failure to get to grips with xenophobia, amid worries that there is more violence to come.

It started, as these things so often do, with a rumour. An “Arab man with a beard” was said to be responsible for a string of murders and mutilations in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. It ended with violence and fire and destruction, and an unmistakeable message to foreigners: you are no longer welcome here.

Grahamstown is a quaint, quiet university town, largely unremarkable except for the density of its churches and for the fact its faultlines are so obvious and so often mirror South Africa’s as a whole.

The country’s racial tensions are obvious in Grahamstown’s town planning, where most white people still live in pleasant houses with large gardens, and most black people in the huge neighbouring township with few streetlights and little in the way of running water. Its absurd wealth inequalities are embodied by the distance of a few streets between the professors dining in fancy restaurants and the desperately poor sex workers servicing truck drivers for a few coins.

Now Grahamstown is exposing yet another of South Africa’s dirty secrets, in the way a community turned – brutally and without warning – on the foreign nationals working in its midst, incited by the alleged foreignness of the murder suspect.

A little over two weeks ago, on a Wednesday, a protest by taxi drivers for better roads morphed into a looting spree in which more than 300 shops were targeted, and some burned to the ground.

The shops were owned by Bangladeshis, Chinese, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Malawians, Senegalese, Somalis, Zimbabweans: the nationality didn’t seem to matter, as long as it was not South African. According to some of the victims, police stood by and watched while their goods – often representing their entire livelihood – were carried away.

“What has become of Grahamstown? How can you do this to other human beings? I am so disappointed in the community. Some of the people looting were people we see every day. How must we feel? How would you feel?” said Jacqueline Khokam, the wife of a Bangladeshi shop owner.

South Africa is no stranger to sudden waves of violence against foreigners. Since 2008, an estimated 300 foreign nationals have been killed in xenophobic attacks, with thousands more displaced.

The most recent national outbreak was in April this year. The attacks began shortly after the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini , a hugely influential figure, told foreigners to go home in a speech. “Let’s take out the ants and leave them out in the sun. We ask that immigrants must pack their bags and go back to where they came from,” he said.

Within days, foreigners in the province of KwaZulu-Natal had been assaulted and foreign-owned shops looted or burnt down. The violence soon spread to other parts of the country, echoing the even bloodier xenophobic violence of 2008, in which 62 people died. Temporary refugee camps were set up to provide food, shelter and basic healthcare to those foreigners directly affected, or those too scared to remain in hostile communities.

By the end of April, when the situation was finally brought under control, the death toll stood at seven, with thousands more displaced. The good news is that number has not risen since. The bad news is that few outside of government think enough has been done to prevent another bloodletting.

The government’s response may have made things worse. Operation Fiela (clean sweep) is a major joint police and army operation designed to target criminality, but has been criticised by rights groups for targeting refugees and asylum seekers instead. Patricia Erasmus , the manager of the migrant rights’ programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, says they have documented a number of cases of foreign nationals being rounded up in pre-dawn raids, denied access to legal representation, or deported without due process.

Erasmus said: “We are of the opinion that the use of the army, midnight raids, excessive force, not allowing people legal representation, not allowing them to access permits and passports, all add to a picture that this is state-sponsored xenophobia.”

In South Africa, these heavy-handed tactics echo another dark chapter in the country’s history. “Needless to say, while the black majority were the targets and scapegoats during apartheid, foreigners seem to have inherited this role under the current ANC government,” said Angela Mudukuti , a criminal law specialist in a column in The Star.

The government rejects these interpretations, arguing that Operation Fiela has been a success. It recognises, however, there is still plenty of work to be done. “Some of the issues are not issues that can be resolved over one month,” said Phumla Williams, the spokeswoman for the cabinet taskforce established to tackle the xenophobia issue, adding that the violence against foreigners should also be understood in the context of South Africa’s violent political culture.

Williams said: “We are also dealing with social cohesion issues … this violence happens quite often. When people are unhappy, when there’s no water or the sewage system has not been serviced, they resort to violence.”

A new short film published by the Guardian explores South Africa’s attitude to foreigners through the eyes of the asylum seekers who have experienced it.

“Which kind of life is this one?” asks Emile Kilozo in the documentary. Kilozo is a refugee from Burundi who has spent the last 13 years in South Africa. “You work hard. After five years, you make money. They come and they beat you. If you are lucky, they won’t kill you.”

The director Andy Spitz said the film aims to make viewers rethink their attitudes towards refugees. “We wanted the person watching the film to understand and experience who the refugees are, what brought some of the migrants to South Africa, what they’ve left behind and what they’ve fled from,” she said.

Erasmus says the film has come at a good moment. “If there’s a silver lining to Europe’s migrant crisis, we’ve noticed a definite shift in the way refugees are portrayed in the media. Before, media organisations were using words like ‘tide’ and ‘swarm’, but now the tone is much more sympathetic. The time is right to engage in conversations with South Africans about this,” she said. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Africa Editor for @MailandGuardian. Also @ISSAfrica.
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