Credit is most certainly due to all those responsible for the safety of visitors and locals attending World Cup-related events. However, away from the Cup’s public arena and tourist areas there was no let up in violent crime. Taxi conflict and attacks on farmers did not miraculously disappear and, in townships and informal settlements around Durban, many died violent deaths. Despite rumours of possible attacks on foreigners being dismissed by government ministers, an exodus of Zimbabweans from the Western Cape was followed by a spate of attacks on Somali shopkeepers in that province. Should fears of a xenophobic outbreak be taken seriously and, if so, what pre-emptive steps can be taken?
Attacks on foreigners labelled xenophobia are but one of the ways in which conflict arising from divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ manifests itself. In this case, the ‘other’ is defined as being non-South African, rather than a member of a different racial, ethnic or religious group. In other words, it is about real or imagined differences when, instead of celebrating the diversity with which humanity is blessed, it is used as an excuse for conflict.
Invariably, it is about competition for scarce resources, whether political or
economic, where the emotional appeal of identifying with a particular nation or ethnic group is harnessed to justify action against those who are
It is probably true that most South Africans are not
xenophobic, i.e. they do not hate or fear foreigners. However, the type of
conflict of which xenophobia is but one manifestation has frequently occurred. In 1949 riots involving people classified as Africans and Indians left many dead. In the 1980s and early 1990s political rivalry was often disguised as ethnic conflict between Xhosa/Pondo (UDF/ANC) and Zulu (Inkatha). That the tendency to cloak political competition with ethnic labels has not gone away has been evident in recent years in attacks in KZN on COPE supporting Xhosas. Nationalism, like ethnicity, is a phenomenon which is activated by specific situations. People celebrating their South Africanness – or Africanness – during the World cup could, in a different context, react to a specific situation as a Zulu, Xhosa etc. We are only at the beginning of building our common nationality across the ethnic and racial divisions entrenched by apartheid.
Blanket generalisations about xenophobia overlook the fact that it too manifests itself in a specific context in which particular grievances exist. It may, however, be orchestrated, as was the case in 2008 when a wave of attacks against foreigners swept the country (or when waves of ‘ethnic’ attacks occurred in the Reef carnage of the early 1990s). Questions must thus be asked about what lessons have been learnt by those responsible for
everyone’s safety from what happened in 2008, and what steps have been taken to prevent re-occurrences of such attacks. Have the recommendations of the Human Rights Commission’s report into the 2008 violence been implemented?
Why, given the rumours and alleged threats to Zimbabweans in
the Western Cape was nothing done to protect vulnerable Somali shopkeepers, who have consistently been victims of brutal attack in different parts of the country? Has anyone been brought to book for these crimes? If attacks on foreigners follow on rumours that they will occur a hidden hand seems to be at work. Either these attacks were planned in advance, or those spreading the rumours saw some benefit for themselves from threatening
foreigners – such as displacing them, or encouraging opportunistic criminals to target them If there is any orchestration it is the job of state security agencies to uncover it, and take appropriate action. If it could ensure the safety of foreign tourists why can it not do the same for poor foreigners living in the country?
Continuing, sporadic attacks on foreign nationals are, giventheir unpredictability, more difficult to deal with, especially as many of these foreigners live in shack settlements. Since the police have a constitutional duty to prevent crime, their intelligence services should play a vital role in pre-empting attacks. However, this they usually fail to do even for their own citizens. To make matters worse, shack areas are usually badly policed, one of the reasons being the lack of easy access due to the absence of roads. Councillors could play an important role in identifying threats, if they did their jobs properly – and provided they are not part of the anti-foreigner
groupings. The fact that foreigners do not have the vote may also count against their receiving support from political party representatives.
Protection for foreigners should be integral to ensuring the safety of residents of poorer – including rural – areas, which are far more vulnerable to serious crime than are middle class areas. People in these areas are often too scared to speak out because intimidation and threat are often rife, and the history of poor policing has not been properly addressed. What steps can be taken to improve the safety of poor communities, especially, in the present climate, foreigners?
One of the Human Rights Commission’s recommendations is the
establishment of a national hotline through which to report threats. Also needed, however, is the involvement of concerned community members who would ensure that complaints, and cases opened, were followed up by the police (far too often they are not) and, if necessary, to protect the identities of people who fear possible repercussions if they identify themselves. It is very important that data bases of threats be maintained as factual evidence, and with a view to establishing whether there are any discernable patterns in the intimidation. This job is too important to be left to the police, who themselves need close monitoring. Faith based organizations, including Diakonia in Durban, are to be commended for taking the lead in initiatives to assist foreigners under threat.
Surely there can be no better way of keeping the spirit of the World Cup alive than by reaching out to foreigners living in our midst with a view to counteracting the threats that they face?