Daily News, 20 April 2008

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Incidents of xenophobia have become a cause for great concern in South Africa, and are directly related to socio-economic problems, such as unemployment and lack of housing. It is also worrying that so many of the recent incidents of xenophobia have involved acts of violence attacks on foreigners, and the burning of their homes and businesses. These were some of the issues raised by a panel of experts on SAfm's After Eight Debate yesterday when discussing the topic: "Is xenophobia in South Africa more rife than in other countries?" The panel was told that a recent study had shown that 40% of South Africans were opposed to Africans from other parts of the continent being in the country. "Findings of numerous studies show South Africans are extremely xenophobic," said panel member Dr Zonki Majodina, deputy chairman of the South African Human Rights Commission. She said a look at the social, economic and political dynamics of xenophobia in this country showed that the problem was very difficult to address. The problem was directly related to social and economic conditions in the country. "Foreigners are perceived as taking jobs away from South Africans." Majodina said the "racial element" of the xenophobia was disturbing, as it almost always involved blacks attacking their fellow Africans. Attacks by South Africans on people from Eastern Europe were virtually unheard of. This phenomenon could result from a post-struggle attitude that "freedom is for us blacks" not to be shared with others. This "racial" point was also made by Mavuso Msimang, director-general of the Department of Home Affairs, who said the victims were predominantly Africans. "It happens in areas where people are economically depressed and Africans are at the bottom of the economic ladder." Msimang said the attacks were a reaction to economic competition. He said many of the foreigners, such as the Zimbabweans, had high levels of education. "It would be a good thing for South Africa to absorb many of the foreigners Zimbabweans or whoever who have high levels of skills." He said South Africa owed its liberation to international solidarity and the African continent had contributed substantially. South Africans who went into those countries had been well treated. This big debt of gratitude should never be forgotten. But, he pointed out, the South Africans who went into neighbouring countries were mainly freedom fighters and were not looking for jobs. "Issues of South Africans being absorbed into the economies of those countries did not arise." He said there had been similar problems of resentment within the country. "In the Western Cape there was a strong protest against people coming there from the Eastern Cape. We must find out the root causes of such problems. The most obvious is where there is a lack of housing or a lack of employment. "When people from other areas take jobs, there tends to be resentment." Resentment and competition are important factors, according to a third member of the discussion panel, Jack Redden, regional representative for the UN High Commission for Refugees. He said attacks had started some time ago on Somali refugees in South Africa, as these individuals tended to be shopkeepers and there was a perception that they were outselling their competition. These attacks had now spread to nearly all groups of foreigners. "There have been attacks on people who have been here for 20 years, but who are still considered foreigners." Redden said xenophobia was a worldwide problem. "What is marked in South Africa is the violence associated with it." He said in many countries refugees were put in camps, but South Africa had allowed them to "mix in and make their own way". "This is a big advantage to them." Refugees and asylum seekers, he said, were a relatively small proportion of the foreigners in South Africa.