The government’s plan to combat the scourge of xenophobia was shown to have borne little fruit this week, when the country was once again gripped by a wave of anti-immigrant violence in Johannesburg and Pretoria. Scores of people were injured and hundreds of foreign- and local-owned shops were looted.
The 67-page plan, released in March, calls on the government to fight discrimination against foreign nationals by sending a clear message that violence against migrants will not be tolerated and that those found to be involved will be prosecuted.
This week saw more than 90 arrests in Gauteng and 20 arrests in KwaZulu-Natal during the violent outbreaks against foreign nationals, but none of the suspects were arrested for xenophobia. In Gauteng these arrests were for public violence, malicious damage to property and theft; in KwaZulu-Natal they were for the obstruction of traffic, possession of unlicensed firearms, attempted murder and malicious damage to property.
“Criminals are taking advantage of a situation. There’s no crime called xenophobia, only different things that inform public violence, and that’s what the majority of arrests were for,” said police spokesperson Vish Naidoo.
It is more than a decade since the 2008 attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa, during which more than 60 people were killed. And Vusi Sibanda, of the African Diaspora Forum, says that the country is likely to see more attacks on migrants should leaders continue to fail to quell xenophobic sentiments.
Sibanda said the latest bout of xenophobia has been exacerbated by “reckless” remarks made by political and community leaders. “Many South Africans are already angry because of their socioeconomic situations and, when that is coupled with xenophobic attitudes, it leads to violence on both sides,” he said.
Many commentators have stressed the growing frustration and anger among poor people as an underlying factor that led to the looting. It has also been noted that European migrants escaped any attacks.
Nomfundo Mogapi, the executive director at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, says we have to look at the negative sentiments that many South Africans harbour towards fellow Africans.
Mogapi said the country tends to address xenophobic attitudes only when there is an eruption of violence. “We tend to say that when there is this eruption of violence that it is simply criminal elements, but I believe that this is just a deflection from the deeply entrenched xenophobic sentiments and attitudes in our country,” she said. “These sentiments are mainly toward’s people from the continent and its almost internalised hatred for ourselves. It’s a deeply psychological issue.”
Although antagonism towards migrants is not something unique to South Africa, Mogapi says the violent nature of attacks against foreign nationals is something that needs to be addressed. She says this can be attributed to the country’s past, which was filled with violence from the apartheid regime, and colonialism before that.
Thando Maeko is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian