In South Africa, Misperceptions Fuel Violence Towards Immigrants

A Zimbabwean immigrant to South Africa stands beside his car, which was set alight in the recent attacks. Illovo, South Africa, April 19. (Rajesh Jantila/AFP/Getty Images)

South Africa’s recent deadly attacks on immigrants, looting of foreign-owned stores, and resulting widespread displacement demonstrate that the negative attitudes of many in the country remain mostly unchanged since 2008, when it experienced similar anti-immigrant violence. The April attacks, which claimed seven lives, also revealed the South African government’s failure to put in place a comprehensive strategy to combat xenophobia locally and nationally.

Some analysts have attributed the recent wave of attacks to statements made in March by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, including telling foreigners to “pack their bags and go home.” The king urged the government to take a much tougher stance on immigrants so that South Africans would not have to compete with them for limited economic opportunities. Violence started in the city of Durban and spread to other parts. The attacks displaced an estimated 2,000 immigrants from countries such as Zimbabwe, Burundi, Malawi, Ethiopia, and Somalia. The seven recorded deaths compared with 67 people—a third of them South Africans citizens—killed in the 2008 attacks.

Many South Africans, from the political elite to the unemployed and poor surviving in informal settlements, believe foreign nationals “steal” jobs from local citizens. Some of the country’s politicians are quick to propagate this, possibly because they believe it or to distract an increasingly restless population from their failure to provide jobs. South Africa’s unemployment rate currently stands at about 25% and the World Bank in January revised the country’s expected 2015 growth from 2.3% to 2.1%, and from 2.8% to 2.5% for 2016.

Regardless, research suggests foreigners are not “stealing jobs” as alleged. In August 2014, the Migrating for Work Research Consortium (MiWORC) found that 80% of the South African working population aged between 15 and 64 were people born in the country and working in their local area, and 16% were “internal migrants” from other parts of the country. Just 4% could be defined as “international migrants” from other countries.

The MiWORC study did find that unemployment rates among international migrants were much lower, at 15% compared with 26% among non-migrants, but this was explained by international migrants being more willing to take up jobs that offer few benefits, involve long hours, and lack contracts. Often, these insecure jobs are unwanted by locals.

Another belief that helped fuel the recent violence is that international migrants dominate the informal sector, including running small stores in the country’s townships. Again, this view has been advanced by members of the government. In January 2015, South Africa’s Minister of Water Affairs and Sanitation Nomvula Mokonyane stated on Facebook that “almost every second spaza (an informal convenience store) and even formal general dealer shops are run by people of Somali or Pakistan origin.” She pledged that, “Our townships cannot be a site of subtle takeover and for the buildup for situations we have seen in other countries. I am ready to state my view formally in defense of our communities.”

Again, research, this time published by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory, contradicts the popular perception. According to survey data, 18% (fewer than two in 10) of informal sector business owners in the Gauteng province, the hub of South Africa’s economy, come from another country; 28% moved to the province from elsewhere in South Africa; and 54% were born in Gauteng. The research also shows that international migrants make significant contributions to the economy by renting shops from South Africans, providing employment to locals, and paying value-added tax.

Despite this contradictory evidence, the South African government has until now done little to tackle the high level of xenophobia in the country. In November 2014, South Africa’s former United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said the country needed a national action plan to fight xenophobia and racism. This reflected the fact that authorities did not implement many of their own recommendations, and those from civil society, after the 2008 violence.

These recommendations included developing: a report of lessons from the attacks; an early warning system for identifying cases of xenophobia; an anti-xenophobia desk for collating information and informing cases in the national police commissioner’s office; a best practice guide for prosecuting cases; an agreement between prosecuting authorities and the police; and a system for interventions by particularly affected municipalities.

The system seems to have largely failed to send a clear signal, either through successful prosecutions or policing strategies, of there being a zero tolerance attitude towards the phenomenon. For instance, while 62 people were killed in the attacks of 2008, as of 2010 the South African Human Rights Commission, “could find only 33 cases registered for murder or attempted murder,” resulting from the violence. There had reportedly only been one conviction for murder among these.

As in 2008, the government has adopted an action plan to respond to the recent attacks. This consists of 27 recommendations, including ensuring that: intelligence-driven operations exist in local communities; there is a faster administration of justice through dedicated prosecutors and courtrooms; there is greater police visibility in hot spots to respond to incidents quickly; discussions are held with traditional leaders; the government takes charge of messaging in the media and; churches, traditional organizations, civil society and community structures are engaged in the process.

It is too early to assess whether the government will act on its stated plan this time around, and whether the outcomes will succeed in tackling the widespread xenophobia in South Africa. The government at least deserves credit for the way its initial actions, such as deploying security personnel to hot spots, do seem to have quelled the violence. It also established centers to accommodate displaced immigrants, which provided them with food and other necessities and helped towards their reintegration into communities.

The government’s record will, however, be judged more in the long-term. Implementing improvements collaboratively with civil society and other affected parties will be critical. Given the amount of misinformation and misinterpretation outlined above, a comprehensive and inclusive education campaign on issues of immigration and xenophobia must be rolled out across the country.

Furthermore, those accused of perpetrating and inciting violence—regardless of socioeconomic or political standing—will need to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. This will avoid any perception that the lives of immigrants do not matter, and that those who commit acts of violence against them, whether motivated by xenophobic attitudes, or sheer criminality, can get away with it. Ultimately, removing the threat of more violence will entail changing the attitudes of South Africans towards immigrants and immigration. And this will not be achieved overnight.

Hamadziripi Tamukamoyo is a South Africa-based researcher previously with the Institute for Security Studies.