Business Day, 1 April 2008
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Drunk on the alcohol they had just looted, some sang Awuleth’ umshini wami and continued into the night. By morning, two Zimbabweans were dead. They were victims of the latest xenophobic attacks. Hundreds of mainly young men combed Attridgeville’s informal settlements such as Jeffsville, Phomolong and Brazzaville, storming foreigners’ shacks and their spaza shops. Survivors, most of them fleeing with only the clothes on their backs, huddled at a temporary shelter at a primary school near the stadium where Jacob Zuma gave his first major speech after taking the helm of the African National Congress (ANC). A difficult decision awaited those not already taken away by immigration officials: to start afresh, penniless in SA, or to get into the bus provided by the home affairs department, and return to the deprivation they had sought to escape in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi or Zambia. Unlike several other attacks around the country — including one recently at the nearby Itireleng squatter settlement — this one seems to have shaken many people, including in the ANC. The ruling party called on state institutions to apply immigration laws in a consistent, even-handed manner “with due regard to the country’s constitution and its international commitments”. Nine years ago a “roll back xenophobia” campaign was launched by the South African Human Rights Commission and others. Commission chairman Jody Kollapen says the main lesson learnt is that xenophobia cannot be dealt with simply by appealing to communities to be tolerant without addressing the economic dimension and competition for resources. Last week’s incident even prompted Home Affairs Minister Novisiwe Mapisa-Nqakula to visit the migrants. But her department sought to deflect criticism by declaring that protecting migrants was not their brief. It promptly deported about 60 of the victims. The incident exposed shortcomings of government immigration policy, which has taken flak for criminalising migrants and fuelling xenophobia. “Failure to manage policies, especially on asylum and regarding refugees, frustrates local people and discredits all migration in the eyes of ordinary people,” says Sandy Johnson of the Centre for Development and Enterprise. Political ambivalence has a lot to do with it too. Despite a huge backlog of applications for asylum, together with regular deportations, President Thabo Mbeki has said South Africans should live with the increased flow of Zimbabweans. Some have blamed desperate migrants for pushing up crime. But the Attridgeville attacks were indiscriminate, making no distinction between legal and illegal migrants. Even a Zulu man from KwaZulu-Natal fell victim to xenophobia. He paid a terrifying price for renting a shack on land owned by a Zimbabwean. “They didn’t care, they didn’t ask. They just got in and kicked,” he says. To handle the stream of migrants, SA could choose to step up border control or issue temporary permits, but “we don’t really do either”, Johnson says. A report by the auditor-general highlights shortcomings in managing SA’s borders. It says, for instance, that there has been no security analysis of the border fences. But managing migration is also about fulfilling the requirements of international conventions that SA has signed. “We take on these obligations under international law,” Johnson says. “We subscribe to treaties, we wish to be seen as a state that is a good global citizen, but we don’t manage them.” This is easier said than done, however. “Nobody should lack sympathy for the government because every country in the world that is richer than its neighbours face problems of this sort,” Johnson says. Tara Polzer of the Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of the Wit- watersrand says “every country in the world pretends it can control its borders”, yet this is almost an impossible task. While it is standard practice internationally for the authorities to monitor and enforce immigration laws, it is important to separate issues. Polzer says that deporting victims while ignoring crime perpetrated against them is wrong. “It gives the impression that whatever you do to someone who is illegally in the country is fine, since they should not have been here in the first place,” she says. After all, even the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration proclaimed recently that labour rights applied to all workers, including undocumented migrants. Xenophobia, which appears to be a mounting problem targeting black migrants, has been called the “new apartheid”, perpetrated by the old victims who are still wallowing in poverty in the new SA. Polzer says interpersonal tensions in SA are often dealt with violently, and entire groups are blamed for the actions of individuals. In addition, she says previous xenophobic attacks point to the existence of a trigger relating to service delivery. “There is always a particular one-on-one issue, and there are people who construct what they are doing as self-defence,” she says. In the Attridgeville attack, the trigger was ostensibly the electrocution of a local by an illegal power connection made by a Zimbabwean. A subsequent protest touching on demands for RDP houses, electricity and running water may have provided further impetus. “I think it’s two completely separate issues that get connected,” says Polzer. On the one hand is an individual case, and on the other a mobilised community.