Ten years on and SA is still bat­tling xeno­pho­bia

The Sunday Independent - - News - ALANA BARANOV ■ is a free­lance writer and so­cial jus­tice ac­tivist based in Dur­ban. She rep­re­sents the South African Jewish Board of Deputies on hate crimes work­ing group and runs the adult ed­u­ca­tion and so­cial jus­tice pro­grammes at the Dur­ban Holo­caust a

THE streets are on fire. Plumes of smoke from burn­ing tyres blacken the sky as peo­ple are dragged through the streets. Some are tor­tured or “neck­laced”.

Hun­dreds of in­no­cent men, women and chil­dren, with only the clothes on their backs, find shel­ter in church base­ments, mosques and syn­a­gogues.

Th­ese scenes are not from the dark­est days of apartheid but the streets of the new South Africa in May 2008.

Just over a decade into our democ­racy, a wave of xeno­pho­bic ri­ots swept across the coun­try, leav­ing 62 peo­ple dead and scores wounded.

Hun­dreds found them­selves home­less, their busi­nesses, pos­ses­sions and sense of safety de­stroyed. In an in­stant, South Africa’s dream of a “rain­bow na­tion” had been shat­tered.

This month marks 10 years since those har­row­ing events and, to our deep shame, not much has changed. Xeno­pho­bic vi­o­lence has be­come not only a heart-break­ing daily re­al­ity, but we have failed to put into prac­tice any of the lessons learned from the tragic events of 2008.

Ac­cord­ing to the African Cen­tre for Mi­gra­tion and So­ci­ety, more than 400 im­mi­grants, refugees, asy­lum-seek­ers and those viewed as “out­siders” have been killed in the past decade and more than 100000 peo­ple dis­placed, with mil­lions of rands of prop­erty looted.

In re­cent years there has been a sharp in­crease in the sever­ity of vi­o­lence di­rected to­wards those per­ceived as the “other”.

As in 2008, those most af­fected to­day are black African for­eign­ers, as well as poor and dis­en­fran­chised South Africans liv­ing mainly in the town­ships.

Most of those tar­geted with hate had fled their home coun­tries in fear for their lives or were des­per­ate to build a bet­ter life for their fam­i­lies. They ar­rived with lit­tle more than hope in their hearts, but many brought crit­i­cal skills, knowl­edge and a deep-seated mo­ti­va­tion to con­trib­ute to our so­ci­ety.

While xeno­pho­bia is not pe­cu­liar to our coun­try, it is espe­cially tragic here, given the his­tory of racism that our peo­ple have over­come and the role our fel­low Africans played in pro­vid­ing places of ex­ile and sup­port in the fight against apartheid.

In the count­less gov­ern­men­tal and civil so­ci­ety round ta­bles, sym­po­siums and di­a­logues that fol­lowed in the wake of the 2008 ri­ots, his­tor­i­cal, so­cial and eco­nomic fac­tors were cited as the un­der­ly­ing causes of xeno­pho­bia.

Many of the is­sues – in­clud­ing the legacy of apartheid poli­cies in the coun­try’s struc­tural in­equal­i­ties and sys­temic racism, the cul­ture of im­punity for those who at­tack for­eign­ers and the use of ugly rhetoric for po­lit­i­cal gain – have not only gone un­re­solved but have wors­ened.

Although those days were some of demo­cratic South Africa’s worst, glim­mers of our unique spirit of “ubuntu” shone through the dark­ness of hu­man suf­fer­ing. There were count­less ex­am­ples of self­less­ness, brav­ery and com­pas­sion.

In the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the at­tacks, var­i­ous faith-based, civil so­ci­ety and non-gov­ern­men­tal groups mo­bilised to pro­vide re­lief and rally do­na­tions of food and ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties for those in shel­ters and dis­placed per­sons camps.

I will never for­get the scenes of Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders treat­ing the wounded hud­dled in the base­ment of the Cen­tral Methodist Church in cen­tral Jo­han­nes­burg, or the scenes of the Red Cross, Gift of the Givers and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, among oth­ers, co-or­di­nat­ing truck­loads of goods to var­i­ous sites of safety and im­ple­ment­ing pro­grammes such as tem­po­rary schools to oc­cupy the youngest vic­tims.

This short-term re­sponse to as­sist­ing those af­fected was fol­lowed by the cre­ation of long-term strate­gies to un­der­stand, ad­dress and solve the root causes of the vi­o­lence.

Just one ex­am­ple of this work, which I was priv­i­leged to be a part of, was the cre­ation of the Hate Crimes Work­ing Group (HCWG).

Var­i­ous NGOs that had worked to­gether in the disas­ter re­lief ef­fort felt there was a dire need to ad­dress xeno­pho­bia and other forms of dis­crim­i­na­tion.

The HCWG, a multi-sec­toral net­work of non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions set up to spear­head ad­vo­cacy against hate crimes, is just one of many ini­tia­tives that con­tinue to work tire­lessly to as­sist vic­tims of hate.

Pro­grammes and cam­paigns that fos­ter in­clu­sion and build bridges be­tween com­mu­ni­ties, such as the South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ Make Us Count Elec­tion Ob­server team – which com­prises mem­bers of the Jewish com­mu­nity with lo­cals of other faiths and for­eign­ers who want to give back to the coun­try’s demo­cratic process – do im­por­tant work. The scope for ex­pand­ing th­ese projects is vast.

Ten years on and there is much work to be done to tackle dis­crim­i­na­tion in our so­ci­ety. One es­sen­tial step is to recog­nise xeno­pho­bia, as well as other crimes of prej­u­dice such as ho­mo­pho­bia and anti-semitism, as hate crimes.

Hate crimes are mo­ti­vated by bias and tar­get vic­tims based on their per­ceived mem­ber­ship of a cer­tain so­cial group. They are mes­sage crimes that take a psy­cho­log­i­cal toll on the en­tire com­mu­nity to which the vic­tim be­longs and of­ten hap­pen in an en­vi­ron­ment in which dis­crim­i­na­tion against par­tic­u­lar groups is so­cially ac­cepted.

Only by ac­knowl­edg­ing th­ese acts as hate crimes and putting in place the ap­pro­pri­ate leg­is­la­tion can we ad­e­quately record and po­lice hate crimes, im­prove the ju­di­cial re­sponse and bet­ter mon­i­tor them.

The time has come for all those who live in our coun­try to push our lead­ers to act on th­ese cru­cial is­sues and en­sure that the spirit of our pro­gres­sive con­sti­tu­tion, and the val­ues en­shrined in the Free­dom Char­ter and the hu­man rights foun­da­tion of our coun­try are put into prac­tise.


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