Let’s deck the stalled xeno­pho­bia re­port with boughs of folly

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES -

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

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