Read, Debate: Engage.

Anti-migrant violence met with silence

April 25, 2022
topic:Refugees and Asylum
tags:#South Africa, #migrants, #refugees, #xenophobia
located:South Africa
by:Cyril Zenda
As frustrated citizens of South Africa vent their pent-up anger on foreign nationals, the government is accused of doing nothing to stop “Operation Dudula," a xenophobic campaign that is striking fear in the hearts of the country's African migrant community.

On the night of 6 April, a marauding mob of South African xenophobes operating under the banner of Operation Dudula stormed the home of Elvis Nyathi in Diepsloot, north of the country’s commercial capital of Johannesburg, and dragged him out to the streets where they beat and stoned him before using car tyres and petrol to set him alight; a large crowd cheered as the father of four was reduced to ashes.

The 'crime' for which the 43-year old Zimbabwean gardener was lynched was being an undocumented foreigner, precisely the 'criminals' that the vigilante operation set to flush out when it commenced in January.

Nyathi was only the latest victim of the xenophobic violence that is resurfacing in South Africa. For over three months, the operation had spread to many South African communities; all the while, President Cyril Ramaphosa's administration took no meaningful action to discourage or stop these acts of criminality.

As in other cases of xenophobic attacks, the South African attacks - also referred to as Afrophobia as they almost exclusively target citizens of other African countries - are always stereotypically premised on the belief that foreigners, both documented and undocumented, are to blame for the country’s fast-growing social and economic woes.

Door-To-Door Harassment Campaigns

The year started off with the Julius Malema-led Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) opposition party embarking on a door-to-door campaign checking on restaurants and other small businesses’ employment ratios of locals and foreigners. Where the party found that more foreigners were employed, it demanded that the situation "be corrected."

Soon, members of the 'Put South Africa First' movement moved from staging online and street protests to physically evicting foreigners from their rented houses, assaulting informal traders and destroying their vending stalls in Johannesburg and other areas. The Patriotic Alliance Leaders political party joined in to call on ordinary citizens to expel 'illegal foreigners' from the country.

This escalation culminated in the emergence of Operation Dudula, a full-blown xenophobic campaign that has resulted in harassment, invasion of property, theft, assault and extortion on foreigners.

Governmental inaction

While all this has been taking place, government of South Africa has taken no action apart from issuing conflicting statements by different governmental and ruling party officials.

It is this official inaction that has been worrying many human rights advocates in South Africa and beyond. In early February, the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria issued a statement in which it pleaded with the Pretoria administration to take action and stop the lawlessness.

"The Centre for Human Rights emphasises that the State is under an obligation to protect the rights of non-nationals and to put in place effective preventive and remedial measures to ensure respect for the rights of non-nationals," the centre pointed out.

Even the United Nations raised concern over xenophobic incidents in South Africa. President Ramaphosa had only issued a statement condemning the lawlessness in the aftermath of Nyathi’s lynching.

A Sign Of Complicity?

Questions over the South African government's commitment to fighting xenophobia are often raised when it is considered that despite hundreds of migrants having been killed in broad daylight in the country over the years, there has hardly been any prosecution for these killings and other acts of violence.

Even global right watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) has raised concerns over this trend. In its World Report 2020, HRW bemoaned governmental inaction on the recurrent violence targeting African foreigners and their businesses.

The report cited economic insecurity, poverty, high unemployment and rhetoric by government officials, among other factors, as the causes of the xenophobic violence.

In 2019, the South African government launched a five-year national action plan to combat xenophobia, racism, gender-based violence and discrimination, and address the cycle of violence that plagues the country.

"But the action plan fails to address a key challenge fuelling the problem: the lack of accountability for xenophobic crimes," said HRW in the report. "Virtually no one has been convicted for past outbreaks of xenophobic violence, including the attacks in 2019, the Durban violence of April 2015 that displaced thousands of foreign nationals, and the 2008 attacks on foreigners which resulted in the deaths of more than 60 people across the country.”

Immigration Now an Electoral Issue

President Ramaphosa, whose own political survival hangs in the balance ahead of the 2024 elections after his squabbles-torn African National Congress (ANC) party suffered heavy losses in the November 2021 local government elections, appears to have tactfully avoided taking a bold stance on the emotive immigration issue, which would indubitably have electoral consequences.

In July last year, Ramaphosa’s leadership proved inadequate when violent protests rocked the country in response to the jailing of popular former president, Jacob Zuma; violence that the HRW says caused at least 330 deaths and over $3.4 billion worth of destruction and loses. 

Lloyd Kuveya, Assistant Director at the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, told FairPlanet that the inaction of the government only serves to give credence to allegations that the ruling ANC party seems to be supporting the popular sentiment behind Operation Dudula. 

"I think the nationalistic sentiments of politicians [is] a microcosm of a wider right-wing current political trajectory where states are talking about putting the interests of citizens first," Kuveya said. "Of course this is also likely to translate into votes for political parties. So immigration and security have become electoral issues, besides the usual critical matters about service delivery, employment and social security."

"I think politicians are pandering to the wishes of the electorate, even when those views are sometimes narrow and prejudiced," he added. "Some of the political parties like EFF and the DA [Democratic Alliance] were quick to condemn xenophobic violence, but the ANC and South African First, for instance, have been apologetic and slow to condemn xenophobic violence when it started in January.”

Ballot Box implications

Piers Pigou, International Crisis Group’s senior Consultant for Southern Africa, agreed that political considerations were at play in the sluggish way the government of President Ramaphosa has responded to the attacks on foreign nationals.

"Certainly the issue has become weaponised and subject to political manipulation over the past couple of months," Pigou told FairPlanet. "It is a kind of relatively new development, the way some of the smaller parties have done that. The ANC naturally feels under threat or pressure from its structures to do something about this issue and we have seen the Home Affairs minister playing a front role in this."

He highlighted that the latest anti-migrant stance started when the government started prioritising South Africans ahead of other nationals in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It’s a situation that has ballot box implications, assuming that those who are in the mix of being actively anti-foreigner are also registered voters."

Living In Fear, Desperate To Leave 

Sarah Motha, programmes manager at the Foundation for Human Rights, revealed that the NGO has been inundate with requests by foreign nationals seeking assistance to return to their home countries.

"The situation continues to be tense and volatile on the ground," Motha told the local media. "We have some of our monitors in the civil society sector looking into the situation. We have quite a few migrants that have been living in South Africa for more than 20 years, and they don’t have any means now to return to their home countries," she added.

Holistic Long-Term Solution Needed

In a statement condemning the latest bout of xenophobic violence, Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, a local not-for-profit organisation seeking to foster integration between migrants, refugees and South Africans said the solution to xenophobia lie in social cohesion interventions, trauma-informed longer-term strategies and emotional justice.

"There is a need to build true unity that takes into consideration different viewpoints, improved implementation of laws, better capacity for state bodies, and more accountability - especially for bodies that have a statutory duty to protect," the centre pointed out. "Xenophobia will not disappear overnight, and we need to not only speak out against it, but to understand its real roots so that real solutions can be found."

Image by GovernmentZA

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
South Africa
Embed from Getty Images
A member of Operation Dudula waves the South African national flag as others sings and chant anti-migrant slogans during their KwaZulu Natal operations launch at Durban City Hall in Durban on 10 April, 2022.
© Phill Magakoe
Embed from Getty Images
A Zimbabwean girl holds a banner during a demonstration against xenophobia in Johannesburg, 26 March, 2022.
© Luca Sola
Call to Action
Sonke Gender Justice stand against xenophobia in South Africa
Support now