SOUTH AFRICA: Xenophobia given a red card

Migrants displaced by the xenophobic violence in 2008/IRIN

Xenophobic violence spiked in South Africa’s Western Cape Province as the soccer world cup ended in a blaze of fireworks, and although it appears to have subsided, the fear of further attacks against foreign nationals still lingers.

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According to media reports, “a number” of shops owned by foreign nationals in townships close to Cape Town were razed and looted on 11 July, and about 120 people sought refuge at police stations overnight but had since left, Daniella Ebeneze, of the province’s disaster management department, told IRIN.

“The South African Police … have indicated that the situation is under control and that they are maintaining a high visibility in the most vulnerable areas,” the Provincial Disaster Management Centre said in a statement.

A Ghanaian man was accosted and shot dead on 12 July in Gugulethu township, but police would not comment on whether the killing was an act of xenophobia.

“Initial reports suggest police responded quickly and well” to outbreaks of xenophobic violence in the province, an approach that “addresses the sense of impunity of [xenophobic] perpetrators,” said Duncan Breen, an advocacy officer for the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, an NGO promoting and protecting the rights of refugees and migrants.

Persistent rumours circulated ahead of South Africa hosting the soccer world cup, saying that after the final game there would be a reprise of the 2008 attacks against foreign nationals, when about 62 people were killed and more than 100,000 displaced.

The Forced Migration Studies Programme (FMSP) at the University of the Witwatersrand estimates there are about 1.6 to 2 million foreign-born residents in South Africa, out of a population of 48 million. The FMSP estimates that there are about 1.2 million Zimbabweans living in South Africa.

According to a June 2010 FMSP policy brief: “While [xenophobia is] not a direct cause of violence, widespread anti-outsider sentiments serve as a resource for ethnic, economic, and political entrepreneurs and criminals.

“Outsiders can easily become scapegoats for economic hardship and are vulnerable to robbery and attack because they lack documentation, often carry cash due to banking barriers, and are less likely to have the support of the general residents of the area,” the policy briefing said.

Quick reaction by government

“The primary difference [between 2008 and the present] is the greater preparedness from government,” Breen told IRIN, and civil society had also taken a strong and vocal stand against xenophobia in recent months to counter the widespread rumours of another large-scale attack.

An inter-ministerial committee on xenophobia has been set up and ministers have warned of “harsh action” against those attacking foreign nationals. Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa and Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu arrived in Western Cape Province on 12 July, the day after foreign-owned shops were looted.

“Opportunistic criminals must know that we will deal with them harshly; there is no way we will allow them to spread fear and crime. We are working very hard to find them and prosecute them,” Sisulu said on arrival in the province.

Catherine Schulze, spokesperson for the South African Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank, said in a statement that there was not enough information to accurately predict a recurrence of violence similar to that directed against foreigners in 2008, but the conditions that had prompted it were “largely unchanged”.

“Poverty, unemployment, and incomes indicators have not shifted significantly since 2008, while high levels of crime and violence are an everyday reality in many poor communities. At the same time, reports of increased threats, some disguised as jokes and idle banter, have created an enabling environment for a renewed series of attacks,” the statement said.

Bishop Paul Verryn, of the Methodist church, told local media that threats had been made against him and foreign nationals staying at the Central Methodist Church in the Johannesburg CBD.

The church has provided refuge to thousands of destitute Zimbabwean migrants arriving in South Africa in recent years. “The metro police came [to the church] and said they would be coming for the people,” Verryn told the local media.

“People are returning to Zimbabwe in large numbers,” a humanitarian worker in Musina, a town near South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe, told IRIN. Families as well as lone migrants said they were moving in response to the threats of xenophobia. “They told me they don’t want something to happen to them, or experience something [xenophobia] again.”

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IRIN News

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]