Refugees the scapegoat of SA’s ills

There is one thing 10-year-old Keshia* wishes for with all her might: to leave South Africa for good. 

This country may be the place of her birth and the only country where she has ever lived, but she cannot call it home. 

When, she keeps asking, will her family return to the country her parents left many years ago? A country she has never been to and knows little about, but where they would feel more welcome and safer than in South Africa. 

Born in Johannesburg after her parents fled war and persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and sought asylum in South Africa, Keshia knows what it means not to belong. Her schoolmates make sure she never forgets she is a “kwerekwere”, an alien in their eyes. 

“You’re so stupid,” they call after her. “You just come here and do nothing.” 


Despite having got permanent residency some years ago, her father, a street vendor, has yet to be issued a South African identity document. He has found making a living increasingly difficult, because wave after wave of xenophobic violence has ­targeted foreign merchants and foreign-owned businesses. 

After 13 years in the country her mother has still not been granted asylum. She has long given up selling secondhand clothes in neighbourhood markets because of the hostility of local hawkers. 

To Keshia’s despair, her parents have not answered her insistent question: “When can we leave?” 

For many people from Asia and Africa, harassment and violent attacks from South Africans are a daily reality. 

A Human Rights Watch report released on Thursday, titled They Have Robbed Me of My Life, found that, despite the launch in March last year of the National Action Plan to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, little has changed for these families. 

With politicians denying the xenophobic nature of attacks and even stoking the fires by pandering to populist sentiments, the cycle of violence continues. But orchestrators and perpetrators of violence are rarely prosecuted.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 51 people, including two children aged 10 and 11, who live in the Western Cape, Gauteng, and KwaZulu-Natal and reviewed media reports and South African laws, regulations and decisions.

The report notes that people from other countries are accused of stealing jobs and women, depleting the country’s essential services, spreading diseases, and running crime syndicates. 

These Africans and Asians have become the targets of hate-filled calls to action, looting and waves of attacks time and again. Hundreds have been injured and displaced; dozens have died. 

In a country where violent crime is ever-present, unemployment is high, and inequality levels are among the highest in the world, refugees and migrants like Keshia’s parents have been made the scapegoats for the nation’s ills and government’s failure to provide essential services. 

Police remove asylum seekers protesting at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees offices in Cape Town. (Oliver Petrie/Getty Images)

Keshia has almost lost count of how often her father has been robbed and beaten up for the sole reason of not being born in South Africa. Her mother, too, has been assaulted, spat on and robbed. 

Once she came home from grocery shopping with swollen eyes and a bruised face. The attackers, three South Africans, slapped and punched her because she was unable to answer their greetings in isiZulu.

Her parents’ efforts to seek justice were futile. When they reported the attacks to the police they were met with indifference. According to her parents, only once did detectives come to investigate — when three strangers opened fire on their home in the middle of the night. The cartridge of a bullet that penetrated a bedroom window was found, but the attackers remain at large. 

indifference and an unwillingness to open a case — and no follow-up when police do respond — are the frequent reactions when non-nationals report incidents of violence. Many victims no longer try to file complaints. 

At the height of the nationwide wave of xenophobic violence in September last year, Keshia was knocked down by a car on her way to school. The driver sped away. She was left in the road with a bleeding arm, crying for her mother. No ambulance came. A bystander — ­herself a non-national — helped her up and took down the number plate of the car. No one was ever arrested for the hit-and-run. 

According to the Human Rights Watch report, in early September 2019, mobs wielding weapons and chanting anti-foreigner slogans attacked and displaced non-nationals, destroying thousands of their businesses and homes. The people interviewed by Human Rights Watch are yet to recover financially or achieve justice. Although the government stated that 10 of the 12 people who died in the violence were South Africans, Human Rights Watch has found that at least 18 people from other countries were killed. 

In another incident a South African unleashed a dog on Keshia when she was in a park. She fell and lost a front tooth when she tried to get away from the animal. Yet the officer at the nearest police station wouldn’t even talk to her and her mother. 

“The policeman was mean,” says Keshia. She couldn’t understand a word exchanged between the officer and dog owner, because both spoke isiZulu, but there was no mistaking the hostile tone. “These people don’t like us here. We must go back to our country,” the girl said. 

What she doesn’t know, and what her father struggles to make her understand, is that although much has changed in the DRC since he fled 19 years ago, there are still armed conflicts in South Kivu , the province he comes from. 

Massacres of civilians, fighting between militias and the army, and mass displacements remain part of people’s reality in that part of the DRC. This is what has stopped him from returning with his family to his home country. 

But it causes him distress to see how severely the deep dislike of non-nationals in South Africa has harmed his children, especially Keshia. 

“Every time my parents get attacked, it affects me,” says Keshia. “We are a family, so if one is in pain, we all feel pain.”

Keshia wants to become an accountant like her father was before he fled war and persecution. But the harassment at her public school seems unstoppable. Even the teachers have given up trying to discipline the bullies, and have advised her to avoid them, which is impossible.

Trying to stop the bullying was futile, so Keshia has learned to keep quiet. Her friendship with another refugee girl helps her process some of her anger and anxiety. Heeding their teachers’ advice to ignore the insults the two sit together, eating and chatting. The experience of being made to feel like unwanted outsiders is often a topic of their conversations.

Only when playing netball, running and jumping about, does Keshia feel carefree. But with every new attack on her family, the urge to pack up and go becomes stronger. 

“It will be better in Congo,” she says. “They will just accept me. I just want to be normal. Normal is like peace for foreigners.” 

* Keshia is a pseudonym.

Birgit Schwarz is communications manager Africa at Human Rights Watch. This article is based on interviews with and by Human Rights Watch fellow Kristi Ueda

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Birgit Schwarz
Birgit Schwarz is Communications Manager Africa at Human Rights Watch. Based in Johannesburg, she is responsible for media advocacy and outreach in Southern, Central and West Africa

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