Xenophobia in South Africa: What is (not) being done

By Janah Hattingh

By Janah Hattingh

Recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa have shed light on an issue in the nation ridden by fear of migrants.. What is actually happening in the nation, and in what ways is the South African government responding to the mounting crisis.

Over the past month at least seven people have died in attacks on foreigners in the country. In addition, 5,000 people have been destituted from the safety of their homes, alongside accounts of looting on foreign-owned shops.

The attacks were supposedly prompted by comments made by the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini. He allegedly berated foreign workers, reflecting a deep-seated contempt as he encouraged them to “pack their bags and leave”. Zwelithini, however, denies holding heinous remarks, and that his words were misrepresented in the press.

Following the attacks, migrants were forced to take shelter in government-operated buildings. While others including Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and Malawians were forced to return home.

The assaults took place in Durban and Johannesburg, with unemployment and poor political leadership the root causes of these violent clashes. . It is important to bear two things in mind: firstly, that South Africa has an official unemployment rate of about 25%. Secondly, there are about two million foreign nationals living in South Africa, which makes up about 4% of their population. Consequently, the bulk of the unemployed blame incoming migrants for taking their jobs.

Mozambican writer Mia Couto wrote an open letter to President Zuma criticising South Africa’s recent xenophobic attacks and the lack of protection for migrants. In his address to Couto, President Zuma responded by defending his nation by asserting that ‘South Africa is not a xenophobic nation’. He added that South Africans as an african nation embraces ‘African brothers and sisters who migrate to South Africa legally’. In fact out migration policy is advanced because we integrate refugees and asylum seekers within our communities’.

On Friday 24 April, Zuma met with 50 leaders of organisations representing foreign nationals in South Africa to discuss measures to be put into effect in order to avert future migrant-oriented attacks. However, other governments still bemoan that not enough is being done to prevent the upward trend of violence in the country.

Young generations of asylum seekers and refugees in South Africa are increasingly becoming subject to xenophobic policies implemented by the government. They do not enjoy the same entitlements to education and health due to their foreign origins. Yet, South Africa’s constitution since its writing following apartheid in 1996, is lauded for its liberal credentials. The constitution thereby states that everyone in the country is entitled to high-standard education. However, it seems that this provision is being violated.

On 23 April, about 30,000 people took part in a march in Johannesburg to protest against xenophobia. Protesters held up placards scribbled with slogans such as: “African Unite”, or “Welcome Foreigners”. Port Elizabeth similarly held an anti-xenophobic protest, rallying under banners claiming: “Diversity is our strength”.

The government postponed the country’s annual Freedom Day on 27 April, which celebrates the country’s first democratic elections post-apartheid, in order to allow the country to mourn those who had died in the xenophobic attacks.

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