How to combat xenophobia effectively
MODIEGI MERAFE, RICHARD CHELIN AND MASANA NDINGA-KANGA
THE distressing image of the necklacing of Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave in 2008 circulated around the world, highlighting the brutality of xenophobia in South Africa. From Johannesburg to Durban and Cape Town, foreign nationals were attacked, displaced and killed.
In 2015, violence flared again in some parts of Gauteng. This time the image of the fatal stabbing of Mozambican vendor, Emmanuel Sithole by a group of men that appeared on various media sites symbolised the senseless and reprehensible acts of intolerance. On May 30, KwaMashu in Durban became another epicentre of xenophobic attacks as communities surged in frustration, targeting foreign shopkeepers.
At its core, xenophobia and its resultant violence is not a phenomenon isolated to townships and informal settlements – it has as its roots the inherent othering of those who are different, and the lack of integration at all levels of society. During apartheid, labourers not from urban areas migrated from the Bantustans using passbooks which were issued to them under the false demarcation of these territories as autonomous.
This internal migration reinforced the silos of those living elsewhere but travelling to work in urban areas. Migrant labour to the mines was also constituted of those who travelled from other African countries, but returned home every few months – never truly integrating with the South African labour force. Similarly, black South Africans physically and psychologically traversed a landscape of othering where they entered suburbs with their passbooks, as if tourists in their own country. Experiencing their value as inherently linked to the undervalued labour they provided, they would return to their communities to experience the alienation and dehumanisation of apartheid. For this, and many other reasons, South Africa is characterised by structural and physical violence that results from the creation of “others” – where identity, poverty, inequality and labour intersect.
A 2008 study by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation concluded that the xenophobic violence in informal settlements could be traced to high levels of poverty and unemployment. Structural inequalities and socio-economic challenges contributed to the perception that foreign nationals were benefiting from state resources or directly contributed to crime in communities.
There is a responsibility on community leaders, civil society, councillors and police officials to be responsive to grievances at the onset – so as not to aggravate local actors into violence. Where government agencies, such as hospitals and police stations, engage in dehumanising ways with foreign nationals, they replicate institutional xenophobia that reinforces the attitudes in communities.
Sometimes, government officials and political leaders are the actors driving xenophobia due to the rhetoric used during gatherings – sending an implicit, and explicit, message that foreign nationals are undesirable and subhuman, thus legitimating xenophobic violence.
Politicians need to take greater responsibility for their utterances that can be construed to contribute to violence. In addition, there needs to be greater allocation of policing and other resources to the communities that experience the highest levels of crime and socio-economic deprivation. Councillors and local government must allocate and implement resources in ways that are transparent – the Integrated Development Plan framework makes excellent policy provisions for this. But implementation must be accountable and responsive, particularly in how it addresses policing, housing and economic development. Alleviating the legitimate anger of citizens through responsive government is key.
There is a need for better policies regarding integration of foreign nationals into communities, particularly for refugees protected under the Refugee Act. It is not just enough to offer asylum.
We need to ensure the communities in which they dwell understand their contexts, and social provisions are made to facilitate integration. State actors must be continuously capacitated to be reflective and responsive to the needs of foreign nationals – demonstrating an understanding of their legal obligations and responsibility to protect.
Short-term priority strategies to address xenophobia include establishing an “early warning system”, and raising awareness of this among stakeholders and leaders. Establishing early warning systems in communities with a high likelihood of xenophobic violence would require teams of respected community leaders trained in mediating conflict with clear lines of communication with police and other organisations.
In addition to raising awareness around xenophobia and the rights of foreign nationals, leaders need to directly engage with and challenge hateful agendas that spur violence – sending a message that violence is not the answer. Till now, the government’s response is mainly reactive rather than proactive. For example, the agenda of asylum seeker’s rights is only emphasised when violence has broken out.
Xenophobic attitudes, like racist attitudes, are passed down to the younger generation through informal and formal education – it is important the curriculum at all levels includes an understanding not just of apartheid and its impact, but of African history, colonisation and the role of fellow African countries lending support to the struggle against apartheid, often at great cost to themselves.
Xenophobic attitudes, like racist attitudes, are passed down
Modiegi Merafe is a community practitioner, Masana Ndinga-Kanga is research manager and Richard Chelin is a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation