South Africa has a long history of prejudice and discrimination. One of the major legacies of apartheid is that of intolerance towards ‘difference’ – be it in terms of race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other such factors. Xenophobia is one of our major issues within our communities. Most dictionaries describe “xenophobia” as “hatred or fear of foreigners”, combining the Greek words xenos (foreign) with phobos (fear). In South Africa, we’ve come to understand it as the often violent dislike of foreign nationals, known as the “makwerekwere”.
Xenophobic attacks are not a new phenomenon in South Africa, these attacks started even before 2008 attacks that rocked the nation and the international community. Unfortunately, violence is not restricted to the so-called xenophobic hotspots where localised competition for political and economic power is a trigger for violence. It is not unique to townships such as Diepsloot and Sebokeng. In fact this form of violence had spread across all parts of South Africa killing over 60 people, leaving hundreds seriously injured and over a thousand displaced. As the world watched in shock and dismay, in Johannesburg the Central Methodist Church opened its doors to thousands of displaced foreigners and has been providing them with housing since the 2008 xenophobic attacks. There are many such stories of displaced and injured victims of xenophobia.
Xenophobia as a hate crime
In May 2008, thousands of migrants were displaced due to mass looting and destruction of foreign owned homes, and businesses across the country. Xenophobia became the new buzzword expressing shock and outrage at the incidences of violence against foreigners. While the scale of that spate of violence has not yet been repeated in a single campaign of violence, attacks on foreign nationals have continued since. The violence usually comes in the form of highprofile mob attacks like those we’ve witnessed in Sebokeng and Diepsloot.
According to the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, attacks on foreigners have not stopped. National statistics show that in 2011 on average, one person was killed per week while 100 were seriously injured and over 1000 were displaced. As xenophobic violence continues to grip the country, we have come to realise that the causes of the violence has various historical, social and economical factors.
One of the most frequently cited explanations of the incidences of xenophobia in South Africa is apartheid – the discriminatory attitudes learned during apartheid have not yet left us, not by a long shot. Another explanation is based on criticism of the ANC government’s service delivery record – what apartheid didn’t mess up the ANC will. The rate of socio-economic inequality in South Africa has also been explained as one of the reasons for xenophobia in South Africa. In some cases the violence does not start as xenophobic violence but as dissatisfaction, frustrations grow and they are transferred to a more vulnerable group in communities, these groups are usually refugees and asylum seekers. This violence manifests in the looting of shops owned by foreign nationals. They are sent threatening messages and their shops are looted and burnt. In some cases they are even killed and are made to flee.
It has been pointed out that the greatest scourge of xenophobic violence has been perpetrated in margins of formal society where foreign nationals compete with the poorest South Africans to eke out a menil living – informal settlements.
Impact of Xenophobia on victims
Refugees and asylum seekers who come to South Africa are a traumatised group of society due to persecution from their country of origin. The journey to South Africa for most refugees and asylum seekers is also fraught with danger and problems (crossing dangerous rivers that are sometimes flooded, becoming prey of gangs patrolling no man’s land between BeitBridge and Musina border posts, known as “magumagumas”. They are mugged of their belongings, women are raped and they are even beaten up). In South Africa they are have to contend with being called derogatory names by citizens, like “makwerekwere”. They get told “go back to your country South Africa is not for you…you are taking away our jobs, businesses, our wives and houses meant for us”.
They struggle to access simple services like banking, permits (due to endemic corruption within the Department of Home Affairs where they are asked to pay bribes to officials in order for them to get permits or to get permits renewed). Proper accommodation is a problem as most landlords refuse to accept their permits, this is why most of them live in informal settlements.
Xenophobic attacks adds to the problems asylum seekers and refugees encounter, they are reminded of images of large groups of people chanting slogans, yielding machetes and pangas, this evokes memories of why they fled from their countries of origin. This is known as cyclic traumatisation- first trauma from their country of origin, second trauma from life stresses of daily difficulties they have to face and third trauma from xenophobic violence. They literally have to start their lives all over again and again following such attacks.
Xenophobic attacks remembered
By Leila Samodien – Cape Times
Cape Town – Somali shopkeeper Abdul Aziz Husein was faced with a choice – stay in Dunoon in an attempt to save his livelihood or flee for his life. He left everything behind. A neighbour with a car helped him escape the township unnoticed. “In five minutes, my shop was empty. They even took the fridges,” said Husein. He vividly recalls that night on May 22, 2008. A mob went on the rampage, killing a Somali man, injuring many others, looting shops and leaving hundreds displaced. “I called the police. They came but they said they can’t save my stuff, only my life,” said Husein. He took refuge with thousands of other foreigners at a temporary safety site in Blue Waters in Strandfontein. The conditions were tough. It had been winter, the camp was near the sea and all they had to keep warm at night was one thin blanket. “It was a troubled life there,” he said. He hadn’t returned to Dunoon until two months later.
In another part of South Africa, Polokwane – foreigners have abandoned their shops after protesting villagers allegedly looted them during violence in the area. The violence erupted after a foreign shop owner was found in possession of a cellphone belonging to a local man who was killed three weeks ago. The discovery triggered violence as villagers demanded answers on how the shop owner got the man’s phone. Police said one of the alleged killers took the phone to the foreigner but they did not know whether it was sold to him or was brought there to be fixed. Violent protests erupted on Sunday with villagers sending all the foreigners packing and pushing them out of 11 villages in Sekgopo. Somalian shop owners said they lived in fear as villagers issued threats to burn them alive. One of the shop owners said he had lost his stock and belongings and would not regain the profit lost during the looting. “It is sad because we are not even part of the cell phone scandal but just because we are foreigners we were included. We lived with this community for many years, we were a family, we were one of them,” said one of the victims.
Fifteen years after South Africa’s first democratic elections, the country is still grappling to find ways to better manage ‘difference’. Media reports still carrying stories of race-related killings, the ‘corrective’ rape of black lesbians, regular incidents of xenophobic violence and occasional reports of religious intolerance. With South Africa’s high crime levels, there is a tendency amongst policy makers to dismiss such incidents as being simply ‘criminal’ and an unfortunate part of life in South Africa. Such an approach however, fails to recognise the extreme damage such prejudice-related violence has on the victims, as well as the victim’s broader community. This undermines social cohesion and fails to provide protection against crimes motivated by discrimination and prejudice.
[email protected] – Cape Times