South Africa and the xenophobia demon
Special Report
More articles

South Africa and the xenophobia demon

Posted PETER DUBE in Pretoria

on  Monday, February 27  2017 at  15:48

Xenophobic violence is, once again, rearing its ugly head in South Africa's Gauteng Province.

Gauteng, which means "place of gold", is the smallest of South Africa's nine provinces but it is highly urbanised and home to the country's largest city, Johannesburg and the administrative capital, Pretoria.

In the last three weeks, there have been numerous indications that foreign nationals were under threat in South Africa.

There was a flare-up of attacks on foreign-owned residences and businesses in Rosettenville, Johannesburg and Atteridgeville, west of Pretoria.

Another signal

The registration of an explicitly xenophobic political party, South African First, was also another signal.

Last Friday, a group that calls itself “Concerned Mamelodi residents” staged an anti-foreigners march in Pretoria.

The organisers had spent the past three weeks mobilising people, distributing blue flyers in Pretoria.

The flyer reads: “Why is the government giving asylum-seeker status to Nigerians, Zimbabweans, Pakistanis? Is there war in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Pakistan etc? Unemployment is at 34% in South Africa but they give people asylum-seeker status; when there is no work in South Africa, what do you expect them to do? They will commit crimes. Go to Spar, Cash Crusaders, Nandos, restaurants and other companies etc. It is only Zimbabweans and other foreign nationals working there. Where must South Africans work?”

Sell drugs

The flyer concludes: “Nigerians, Pakistanis, Zimbabweans etc bring nothing but destruction; hijack our buildings, sell drugs; inject young South African ladies with drugs and sell them as prostitutes. How is that helping us? They have destroyed our beloved Johannesburg, now they are destroying Pretoria.”

The march sparked violent clashes with the security agencies and heightened fear among foreign nationals.

Ms Rudo Gwaze of Capital Park in Pretoria West said they were now living in fear.

“We're scared because the last two times the attacks happened, it started off with signs like these. I may have to go away from this place until I’m sure there is calm,” Ms Gwaze said.

Were killed

The last two bouts of attacks took place in 2008 and in 2015. Several people were killed while others were left injured during the nationwide attacks.

The Africa Diaspora Forum (ADM) chairperson, Mr Marc Gbaffou, said they had been receiving calls from foreign nationals who said “they do not know where to go”.

He described the flyer’s rhetoric as consisting “slanderous and defamatory attacks on the migrant communities mentioned” and urged authorities not to allow the march to take place.

One of the organisers, Mr Makgoka Lekganyane, said their march was legal and they would not be discouraged from telling the truth. The march had been met with stern opposition from civil and religious organisations.

The response

“Unemployment is high but they give people asylum-seeker status. It must be stopped. The little jobs that are created, go to foreigners. Our borders need to be secured. These people need to be taken back to their countries,” Mr Lekganyane said.

Mr Gbaffou said calls by Nigeria for the African Union (AU) to step in needed to be taken seriously.

Nigeria's senior presidential aide on foreign affairs, Mr Abike Dabiri-Erewa, claimed that 116 Nigerians had been killed in South Africa in the last two years.

“This is unacceptable to the people and government of Nigeria,” said Mrs Dabiri-Erewa in an emailed statement.

Mr Gbaffou said: “We are waiting to see the response from the South African government. We hope they will not come out in denial that there is no xenophobia like they did in the past.”

ADM organised a prayer session on Thursday against the Friday march.

The chairperson of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC) Justice and Peace Commission, Bishop Abel Gabuza, called for calm and restraint.

“We cannot stress it enough that, even in cases of extreme dissatisfaction with law enforcement and alleged criminal activities perpetrated by some foreign nationals, community members should not take the law into their own hands. No grievance justifies violence against foreign nationals,” said Bishop Gabuza.

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) also called on authorities to remain vigilant and to prevent a repeat of xenophobic violence.

“Government should take the necessary steps to protect foreign nationals and also initiate interventionist measures aimed at fostering understanding of the conditions that often lead foreign nationals to seek refuge in South Africa, in the same way that South African exiles sought refuge across the continent in the brutal days of apartheid,” the IJR said in a statement.

And while all this was playing out in full public view, the South African government dismissed it.

Drugs and prostitution

The Department of International Relations and Corporation (DIRCO) spokesperson Clayson Monyela on Tuesday said the attacks on foreign-owned residences and businesses were “sporadic criminal incidents”.

“It was just sporadic criminal incidents, the residents were clear that they were unhappy about drugs and prostitution. You can deduce from that there is no nationalities targeted. South Africans are not xenophobic,” Mr Monyela said.

The department of Home Affairs' spokesperson, Mr Mayihlome Tshwete, confirmed they had met the organisers of Friday's march.

“They have a right to march peacefully, we spoke to them and we said as long as the march doesn't add to the current environment it is okay,” Mr Tshwete said.

In 2015, government set up an ad hoc Joint Committee on Probing Violence Against Foreign Nationals. The Committee, whose members included Cabinet ministers, came up with 12 recommendations, including that the department of Small Business social Social cohesion

Development could assist South Africans, both in financial and non-financial needs, social cohesion was to be promoted through the use of inter-cultural sport.

The Premier of Gauteng was also to ensure that mechanisms were put in place to better ensure the implementation of government policy of 30 per cent procurement from Small, Medium and Micro Enterprises and 70 per cent local procurement.

However, Mr Gbaffou believes the recommendations have not been implemented.

“We don't think they were implemented...after the attacks we didn’t hear anything. We know they will never implement the recommendations, they don't want to address the issues,” he said.

Rising hostility

He believes Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba was to blame for precipitating the rising hostility against foreign nationals. Mr Mashaba railed against criminal foreigners in December.

“We believe that Mayor Mashaba made these pronouncements with the intention of making foreign nationals a scapegoat for the present and future failures of his administration in solving the numerous problems besetting the city,” Mr Gbaffou recorded in his letter to President Jacob Zuma.

“His utterances will have the effect of inciting xenophobic violence and mayhem against the migrant community. Already since he made his speech, migrants are reporting that they are facing increased harassment from South African citizens,” it further read.

Hate speech

Mr Mametlwe Sebei from the Lawyers for Human Rights ( LHR) also blamed Mr Mashaba for inciting the vigilante attacks.

“We believe the idea that some people like Mashaba can make this kind of hate speech in inciting violence against innocent people, such as it happened before with King Zwelithini. There should be impunity to accountability, we are saying enough is enough,” he said.

Nevertheless, Mayoral spokesperson Tony Taverna-Turisan questioned the motive of linking the mayor’s insistence on the rule of law being respected and the current xenophobic attacks taking place.

Law enforcement

“It is not only ignorant but very dangerous. Mayor Mashaba has on numerous occasions condemned xenophobia and any form of violence linked to xenophobia,” Mr Taverna-Turisan said.

In Pretoria, Mr Mashaba's counterpart, Mr Solly Msimanga, sternly said there was no place in society for prejudice and violence.

“We encourage all people of Tshwane to not engage in this violent conduct and report any illegal, illicit and xenophobic conduct to local law enforcement so that we may deal with is swiftly,” the Tshwane Mayor said in a statement.