Let’s deck the stalled xenophobia report with boughs of folly
THERE are few more wretched manifestations of the human condition than the refugee.
By definition, you have been wrenched from home and – whether you have fled to Stockholm or Mussina – are at best tolerated in your place of asylum, at worst hated and hounded.
So the widespread indifference to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) report into 2008’s xenophobic violence is deplorable but understandable.
In the face of passive resistance from some gover nment departments, including the military, the report took two years to complete. Since its completion in July it sits stalled in Parliament, tabled before only two – justice and social develop- ment – of the portfolio committees that will want to pick it over.
There are probably another half a dozen more committees to hurdle and although the SAHRC expresses the wan hope that Parliament will prioritise the report’s passage, it probably could take another year.
Or more. Parliamentary committees are a wonderful place to bury inconvenient truths that might unsettle the government’s placid demeanour.
The prevailing gover nment response is that despite the SAHRC findings, xenophobia does not exist in SA. The government is assisted in its denial by the opposition DA, which greeted the report with a stony silence, and by a media that has largely ignored it.
Father David Holdcroft, head of the Jesuit Refugee Service in SA, ascribes this to political ambivalence. “The mechanisms used to try to address xenophobia are those of the state, which by definition exists to protect the rights of its citizens above all others,” he told me.
SA can be better than that, Father David argues. SA has a unique opportunity to develop a just concept of nationality, different from the European nations that are constrained by history. But because of this ambivalence, the task will depend on the efforts of civil society and church groups.
Those who insist that being the hospitable nation that we are – aware, too, of liberation struggle debts to neighbours – we are incapable of xenophobia, should read Of Strangers and Outsiders, the record of a recent panel discussion on xenophobia. Ironically, given the DA’s yawning response to the SAHRC report, hosted by the Helen Suzman Foundation.
Tara Polzer, of the Forced Migration Studies Project at the University of the Witwatersrand, deftly eviscerates the denialists. Following on the at least 62 people killed in the violence covered by the SAHRC report, more than “100 people from the Somali community alone have died each year over the past few years”, according to Polzer.
Nor do these attacks simply reflect SA’s enduring problem of crime and violence. The Wits research shows that the violence occurred not in the poorest wards, nor was it incited by the poorest people, but more often by local business and community leaders.
And then there is internal xenophobia. Polzer notes that not only foreign nationals are targeted, but also South Africans who speak a minority language or come from another province. This may explain why a third of those killed in 2008 were SA citizens.
In an SAHRC report that is cravenly careful not to displease the gover nment with too-forthright analysis or recommendations, there are nevertheless reminders of the abject nature of a refugee existence.
The SAHRC records finding during a field visit some foreigners who had returned to where they had been attacked and burned out. The local community allowed their return, but the refugees had to buy back their looted possessions as part of their “reintegration”.
Such desperate lives from which to avert our gaze. And a happy festive season to you all.
SAHRC report on Parliamentary Monitoring Group site: www.pmg.org.za
Helen Suzman Foundation: h t t p : / / w w w. h s f. o r g . z a / p a s t - e v e n t s / q u a r t e rl y - r o u n d t a b l e - series/ on-strangers-and-outsidersovercoming-xenophobia