Cape Argus, 29 August 2008

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This is an extract from The Perfect Storm: The Realities of Xenophobia in Contemporary South Africa, released recently by the South African Migration Project. It has been edited for space reasons. The tragic events of May should act as a wake-up call to all South Africans. They cannot rest on their laurels. Commissions of investigation (set up by the government) may or may not identify the causes of the mayhem. What is urgently required is action, to ensure not only that the disgrace is not repeated, but that South Africans can hold up their heads as they prepare to host a world event in 2010. All past and future perpetrators of xenophobic violence should be vigorously prosecuted. There are signs that this is indeed what the state intends, although the penalties should be harsh for all of those who broke the law, destroyed and stole property and engaged in rape and murder. This is necessary not only to make an example of xenophobic thuggery but to deter similar actions in the future. The citizenry needs to know that despite its own dislike of foreigners, taking the law into its own hands will not be tolerated. The state also needs to revisit past incidents of xenophobic violence and prosecute those involved as well. While necessary, none of this is enough. Too many South Africans, including too many police and officials, have engaged for far too long in exploiting the vulnerability of foreign migrants. Corruption in all parts of the immigration system needs to become more costly than it is worth to the perpetrators. At the same time, South African employers who flout labour laws in their hiring and employment of migrants need to be exposed and prosecuted. The deeper problem of the widespread and entrenched xenophobic attitudes identified in this report needs to be addressed seriously. There is no reason why the majority of citizens should favour a particular immigration policy provided they are well informed about the purpose, nature and impacts of that policy. But there is absolutely no reason, or excuse, for that to be accompanied by abuse, hatred and hostility towards migrants and "fellow" Africans in particular. We use that term advisedly since there is little evidence that South Africans do view other Africans as their "fellows" in any sense at all. How can attitudes that are so entrenched, pervasive and negative be changed? In brief, by attacking the disease of xenophobia with the same commitment that the state and civil society have shown in attacking the scourge of racism in post-apartheid South Africa. South Africa urgently needs an antidote to a decade of political inaction on xenophobia. Since 1994, South African attitudes have only hardened. What has been done is too little, much too late. Required now is a broad, high-profile, multi-media, government-initiated and -sponsored anti-xenophobia education programme that reaches into schools, workplaces, communities and the corridors of the public service. This programme should be systematic and ongoing. It needs to breed tolerance, the celebration of diversity and the benefits of inter-action with people from elsewhere. As part of this effort, South Africans need to be educated about immigration and the benefits of managed migration. They need to know that immigration is not really as harmful as they think. They need to understand that immigration can be extremely beneficial. They need to know if it is. They need to be disabused of the myths and stereotypes they hold dear. They need to know what rights foreign nationals are entitled to when in South Africa. They need to be African and world leaders in refugee rights protection. They need to understand that South Africa is a member of a region and the world and has responsibilities to both. There needs to be informed public debate and discussion about pan-Africanism, the economic benefits of South Africa's interaction with Africa, and the need for immigrants. South Africans need to abandon their myopic, nationalistic siege mentality. The events of May might provide the necessary spur to political action. Certainly the humanitarian response of many in civil society suggests that there are South Africans who are repulsed and ashamed by what their fellow citizens have done. Officials and politicians need to move beyond rhetoric to action and example. Strong political leadership and will is required. South Africa cannot hold its head up in Africa, in the SADC, at the African Union, or at any other international forum, if it continues to allow xenophobia to flourish. President Thabo Mbeki reacted with "disgust" to the events of May. Disgust at xenophobic actions should translate into disgust at pre-existing and enabling xenophobic attitudes and prompt a serious campaign to clear the minds of citizens. With the exception of the tabloid press, the media response to the attacks in May has generally been exemplary in exposing xenophobia and fostering informed analysis and debate. It has not always been this way. The real tragedy of the last 10 years is the way in which the media have mishandled the issue of xenophobia. Several research studies have shown how the media have uncritically reproduced xenophobic language and statements, time and time again. South Africa has not yet ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. A recent analysis shows the treaty is not inconsistent with South Africa's human rights safeguards and labour law. However, there has been little public debate about the treaty, and knowledge of its content and implications is appallingly low in official circles. South Africa should take the African lead in ratifying this convention and making the reasons clear to its citizens. Commitment and adherence to the Convention would help to clarify what rights and entitlements foreign nationals have while in South Africa. South Africa urgently needs an immigration policy overhaul. The fraught and protracted political process leading to a new Immigration Act in 2002 delivered a policy framework that is incoherent and, in many respects, unimplemented and unimplementable. There is a need to develop a coherent and workable development-oriented immigration plan and to "sell" that plan to an electorate steeped in isolationism and hostility to immigration, despite the many demonstrable benefits it brings the country.