Business Day, 17 May 2008

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In December 1994 and January 1995, armed groups in Alexandra destroyed the homes of suspected illegal immigrants. They marched them to the local police station and demanded that they be forcibly removed. Fast-forward 13 years to Alexandra this week. There are striking and uncomfortable similarities. Except this time, the mob didn’t bother to involve the police. The Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in SA has identified 13 incidents of “community mob violence targeting non-nationals” since December. Xenophobia is defined as the “deep dislike of non-nationals by nationals of a recipient state”. But Nahla Valji of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) says that this definition does not capture the total picture in SA: “Xenophobia in the South African context is not just an attitude: it is an activity. It is a violent practice that results in bodily harm and damage.” The South African Human Rights Commission agrees “South Africans are extremely xenophobic”. This has not always been the case; SA was built on migrant labour. Since 1867, when diamond mines first opened, huge numbers of Mozambicans, Basotho from Lesotho, Malawians, Namibians and Swazis worked with South Africans in the mines. And they still do so. Many settled in SA and integrated into local communities. Valji says a rise in xenophobia often occurs in societies in transition, “particularly when you have economic upheaval”. When times are tough, people compete over an increasingly smaller cake and frustrations are taken out on the most vulnerable. In SA, while research shows that white South Africans are more xenophobic than their black counterparts, violent xenophobic attacks occur primarily in the poorest communities, which are overwhelmingly black. This, to some extent, explains why xenophobic hatred is focused on African immigrants, rather than the large number of Europeans who have also migrated to SA; the African immigrants are perceived as being direct competitors for poor people’s jobs and resources. Valji says it is also no coincidence that the rise of xenophobia has “run concurrent with a rise in frustration over social service delivery”. Although SA has achieved impressive economic growth, this has been largely jobless. Since the late 1980s, unemployment has been steadily increasing. However, research shows most migrants do not compete with South Africans for jobs — in fact, they are job creators. Other factors also contribute, says Valji. “Apartheid taught all South Africans to see people in categories” — racial classification defined all aspects of people’s lives, especially their access to resources. That type of thinking persists, so when faced with a problem, people turn a group of people into “the other”. The apartheid legacy also explains why xenophobia in SA is so violent: the apartheid response to social issues was always violence. As a result, many social interactions are characterised by violence, not just xenophobia, Valji says. The Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in SA also attributes the violent nature of the xenophobia to “communities feeling alienated from local structures of governance and not trusting such structures to resolve their grievances. Poverty, inequality and dissatisfaction with services do not automatically lead to violence of the nature which is being seen in Alexandra and elsewhere.” Xenophobic attitudes are made worse by the fact that the two government institutions that deal with migrants are their worst abusers, according to the Human Rights Commission. The commission found, in its investigation into xenophobia, that the police “abuse their powers through arbitrary arrests and detention of foreigners; destruction of legal documents; and bribery, corruption and extortion”. Home Affairs officials “violate (immigrants’) rights through unacceptable delays in processing their applications, and bribery and corruption”. The consortium has called for a comprehensive national strategy to address xenophobic violence, and says it should involve multiple government departments. But in the long term, poverty reduction, and peace and stability in the region will create the best and most lasting solution.