Monday, June 10, 2013

South Africa's Xenophobia

As the largest economy on the continent, South Africa has attracted foreign Africans from as far afield as Nigeria, Ethiopia, the DR Congo and as close as neighbouring Botswana. They come as political refugees or economic migrants, with one goal: a better life. Following the end of apartheid in 1994, thousands of Chinese and South Asian foreign nationals have been living and conducting business across the country. Despite attracting the biggest number of asylum seekers in the world, The Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) found that South Africans receive foreigners with a jaundiced eye.

Instead of South Africans thriving on its much-vaunted multicultural identity, foreigners have been painted in the popular imagination as criminals, job snatchers, and parasites arriving in throngs to eat at an economy battling to feed its own people. In 2011, around 120 foreign nationals were killed, of whom five were burnt alive. In 2012, 140 foreigners were killed and 250 others injured in violent attacks across the country, reported the African Centre for Migration & Society  in Johannesburg. In 2013, the Centre estimates that at least three attacks on foreigners take place weekly. With just one perpetuator brought to justice for the 2008 violence, the South African judiciary is allowing for a culture of impunity to settle, as the foreigner is institutionalised as a soft target, unlikely to enjoy state protection on any level. Foreign nationals entering the country and trying to integrate into society narrate tales of daily strife with authorities. They report harassment at police stations, neglect at hospitals and abuse at immigration offices. The way the state treats foreign nationals essentially represents the way ordinary people treat foreign nationals.

Biniam Misgun, lecturer in the School of Sociology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in Durban explained "If people were not fighting over a bag of corn or sugar, it [the situation] might be a little different."

 SAMP  found that more than 50 percent of South Africans believed foreigners constituted a majority of the country's population while 63 percent of South Africans wanted electrified fences on the country’s borders. In reality, foreign nationals amount to less than five percent, or 2.2 million people out of a population of around 50 million. The study found that xenophobia is firmly embedded across all economic and social strata of South African society but with incidents of violence are more likely in impoverished areas where a riot can sometimes be the only way to the draw government attention. In the  township of Diepsloot in Johannesburg was a scene of chaos after a Somali shopkeeper killed two Zimbabweans he suspected to be thieves on the evening of Sunday, May 26. Angered by the shootings, Diepsloot residents turned their attention on the Somalis, Pakistanis and other foreign nationals doing business in the township. Nineteen foreign-owned stores were attacked in a frenzy of xenophobic violence and looting over the next two days. In Port Elizabeth a Somali man, was stripped naked, his genitals pelted with rocks, stones smashed over his head all the while receiving kicks to the face, became the latest victim of xenophobic violence in the country.  Abdi Nasir Mahmoud Good, died of his injuries. Good is just one of the victims of the xenophobic violence that flared through northern Port Elizabeth and up to four other towns and cities across the country last week. Five other Somalis were injured in the violence and almost every Somali-owned business in Port Elizabeth’s Booysen Park was burned or looted.

“ South Africa wants to promote solidarity and unity on the African continent and yet there is move towards a more restrictive asylum regime," Sicel'mpilo Shange-Buthane, executive director of the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants , in Johannesburg, told Al Jazeera.

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