Xenophobia in South Africa: The time for introspection has comePosted: 13 June, 2013
Xenophobia, just like so many other unsettling issues in South Africa, is gradually becoming part of the way in which we are perceived as a society. The newest upsurge in xenophobic violence clearly indicates that we have not made significant progress since the problem surfaced in 2008. More unsettling however, is the unwillingness of South Africans from all levels of society to acknowledge and address the problem – media houses neglect to conduct in-depth investigations, politicians fail to express their concern over the issue, the South African Police Service controversially fuels public perception through its involvement in incidents regarding foreign nationals, and civilians exercise mob executions with self-righteousness and pride.
The South African Constitution offers protection to citizens and non-citizens, and is one of few constitutions in the world that indisputably does so. The preamble of the Constitution reiterates South Africa’s commitment to uphold the rule of law, and this commitment greatly depends on consistent application of the law in South Africa. It is imperative that South Africans understand that our own claims on the protection of and rights entrenched in the Constitution depend on respecting the rights of others. Arbitrary mob killings of foreign nationals during the past five years suggest that South Africans struggle to come to terms that all people are equal before the law. Allegations of foreign nationals being involved in criminal activities often lead to mob justice, which is a dangerous step towards corroding the rule of law, and eventually the Constitution upon which our society so greatly depends.
Incidents of xenophobic violence seem to suggest that a trend exists around victimising foreign Africans in particular. Ironically, the latest upsurge in xenophobic attacks occurred as our leaders were converging in Addis Ababa for the African Union’s 50th Anniversary to celebrate “African Unity”. Clearly, South Africa has a long road to walk in this regard. We seem to ignore the shared commonality with other Africans, as well as being forgetful about the important role that African leaders and states played in forging the country that we are today. Figures like President Jacob Zuma and former President Thabo Mbeki took refuge in our neighbouring countries during the apartheid era, yet they fail to speak out about the obligation on all South Africans to support those who flee their homes because of intolerable situations.
Allegations are regularly made that the influx of foreign nationals directly affects unemployment and poverty in South Africa, as citizens now have to share the limited number of opportunities with immigrants and refugees. There is a significant lack of evidence and research to support these allegations, and this unfortunately negatively impacts both ways. Those standing for the allegations argue that it is trite enough that no evidence is necessary, while those opposing it (usually politicians and officials queried about their neglected obligations) dismiss the allegations out of hand. It is very clear that we can no longer ignore the problem, and detailed evidence-based statistics are necessary. Only through understanding the problem in full, can we begin to address it. Misguided anger and revenge will not address any issues around poverty, unemployment and crime. Through xenophobic violence we are not only creating a hostile environment for all people, but we are also stigmatising all foreign nationals – even those residing in the country on legal terms.
Remarks that South Africans are growing desensitised towards xenophobia and the violence that it fuels have attracted much attention. The truth, however, is that we have already passed the point of “becoming desensitised”. Media reports and video footage clearly indicates that South Africans from all walks of life not only encourage xenophobia, but no longer hesitate to act on these feelings. We are raising the next generation of South Africans by setting an example of hostility and apathy. The fact that we are dealing with real people, real lives, seems to escape us completely. It is crucial that we start publicly debating this issue, and deal with it decisively. Unfortunately none of this is possible without taking the first step – to admit that we, as South Africans, have some introspection to do.
About the Author:
Josua Loots works as a project manager at the Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria. He holds an LLB and LLM in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa from the same institution. Josua grew up in the Limpopo province of South Africa, and his interests include international law, business human rights and conflict resolution.
- Centre for Human Rights Press Statement: Multi-pronged response required to curb Xenophobia (6 June 2013)