South Africa: Behind the xenophobic killings

South Africa, up until the recent outbreak of xenophobic violence, was one of the rare, relatively stable African countries where refugees like myself could expect their basic rights to be protected.

There is even progressive legislation. As a result, some refugees come to South Africa for "peace" and security,
whereas others use South Africa as an exit point to greener pastures in other continents.

Now our sense of safety here is destroyed. Many of us understand xenophobic violence as the tip of an iceberg that all South Africans could crash into, if the Titanic of socio-economic problems is not reversed.

Many of the frustrations, disillusionments and sufferings of the people attacking us also affect immigrants, especially the commodification of the most basic rights of the poor. Many of us simply cannot afford to live in this economy, at a time of fast-rising prices for all goods.

Of course, these deep-seated causes cannot justify the killing of dozens, and the displacement of more than 15,000 fellow African people. The violence against Africans violates any sense of solidarity, which is so badly needed.

Refugees went through such traumatic times in their home countries and throughout their journey, that once in destination countries like South Africa they need care and assistance. Many refugees lost their family members, belongings, dignity and hope due to the violation of their basic human rights by oppressive states.


Xenophobic violence does not occur out of the blue. The South African National Intelligence Agency admitted last week that warning signs were emerging. They were not taken seriously, though.

For example, although none of us predicted the onset of xenophobic attacks, we should have been aware of the "tinderbox" in hostels, shack settlements and townships, merely because of the 10,000 protests that have occurred each year since 2005.

These frustrations and grievances were not satisfied by this government, and so seem to have been directed at the wrong people. The assumption is that chasing and sometimes killing immigrants will provide more jobs to local citizens.

But as many business voices have declared in recent days, xenophobic killing will push away private capital, tourists, small and big businesses, and worsen the lives of those who desperately seek employment.

So we must all become serious about several causes of xenophobic violence that have nothing to do with the presence of refugees.

The first cause is the failure to keep election campaign promises, such as a minimal amount of free municipal services. Desperate people are still waiting for the fulfilment of these promises. Instead, poor people watch their elected leaders getting richer and crossing the floor to more lucrative positions in other parties, so betraying the will of their electorate.

Another cause is the commodification — that is, too much market power, not enough state supply — of many basic rights, including food, water, electricity, housing, health care and education. They are so expensive that in many cases they are inaccessible.

Some people seem to believe that foreign consumers trigger price hikes, because our arrival in South Africa since 1994 coincided with price liberalisation, land speculation, water commercialisation and services disconnections, and price fixing in bread and other commodities.

Unemployment is a further cause underlying outbreaks of violence, especially since the post-Apartheid World Trade Organisation pushed policies that destroyed a million formal sector jobs. In this context, the informal economy is very competitive.

Most refugees are self-employed and work hard in order to rebuild their shattered lives and regain their dignity. Many refugees work in the car guarding, hairdressing, shoemaking, construction, repair business and entertainment industries where they create their own small businesses and employ local people.

Burning down these businesses will destroy jobs and generate even more unemployment.

Finally, there is profound ignorance about refugee-related issues. There are no public awareness campaigns by what is a very hostile state.

South Africa signed agreements with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1993 and 1998. The first piece of legislation dealing with refugees was drafted and implemented in 2000.

Until the latest violence, there have been no official efforts to raise public awareness around refugees and the distinction between refugees, and legal and illegal immigrants. There may be a link between this apparent embarrassment and South Africa's foreign policy mishaps, such as in Zimbabwe.

Who'll be next?

If there are deep socio-economic reasons behind the killing of 42 African brothers and sisters, and the displacement of more than 15,000 people including children, what can be done? Of course we must assert that all human life is sacred and everyone has a right to a dignified life.

But my sense is that stopping the carnage of innocent refugees must be everyone's responsibility, before the attacks move to other social groups here.

To do so means a renewed social and state commitment to speed up service delivery and in the process to create jobs, so as to decrease frustrations and re-establish trust in government.

To end this crisis means working with us as refugees on basic rights issues that should unite poor people. Only with a more holistic approach, can we bring together immigrants and South African citizens in alliance for a better life for all.

[Abridged from the Kwa-Zulu-Natal Mercury. Baruti Amisi is the chair of the KZN Refugee Council and a PhD student in the
UKZN Centre for Civil Society.]

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