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Poverty, Inequality Blamed for 2008 Xenophobic Attacks in South Africa

  • Scott Bobb

A woman clutches a chicken in the poverty-stricken Lawley district, south east of Johannesburg (file)

A woman clutches a chicken in the poverty-stricken Lawley district, south east of Johannesburg (file)

Resentment against foreigners in S. Africa boiled over in part because of frustration over government's failure to deliver housing and social services 14 years after end of apartheid

A report on the attacks against foreigners in South Africa two years ago blames frustrations over the lack of housing and social services and a widening gap between rich and poor for the violence.

South Africa's Human Rights Commission has issued its report on what locally is called the xenophobic violence of May 2008.

Human Rights Commissioner Pregs Govender, noted that long-standing resentment against foreigners in the country, aggravated by local disputes, boiled over in part because of frustration over the government's failure to deliver housing and social services 14 years after the end of apartheid.

"The question of the micro-politics and that violence spearheaded by local groups and individuals seeking to claim or consolidate power is one factor, and the other factor being accumulated frustrations around informal conditions of housing," Govender said.

The violence began in several impoverished communities in the Johannesburg area and spread quickly across the country.

Gangs attacked mostly African foreigners, burning their houses and taking their belongings. More than 60 people were killed, including dozens of South African citizens. Hundreds of people were wounded and an estimated 100,000 were made homeless.

Some attackers said they wanted to drive away foreigners because they took jobs and public housing from poor South Africans. Authorities said the primary motive was criminal.

The attacks occurred during a period when inflation reached 10 percent per year in the country and food prices doubled or in some cases tripled.

Official unemployment is around 25 percent, but the figure in impoverished settlements surpasses 40 percent and is as high as 80 percent among the young.

Some analysts said the violence occurred so quickly and was so widespread that it appeared to have been coordinated. But the senior author of the report, Tamlyn Monson, said the Commission found no such evidence.

"We were not looking for that evidence specifically, but speaking to police, asking if they had found out who had been responsible, speaking to community members, there was absolutely no indication that there had been coordination across the country," Monson said.

The violence shocked many South Africans. The government condemned the violence and demonstrations against xenophobia were staged across the country.

Among the dozens of recommendations, Commissioner Govender says measures must be taken to prevent local leaders from inflaming resentments for political reasons.

"Monitoring what ward councilors are doing and monitoring political parties' responses to ward councilors who act in ways that in any way entrench these sorts of attacks or these sorts of stereotypes or these sorts of prejudices in their campaigning," Govender said.

The Human Rights Commission concluded that justice, compensation and the re-integration of victims into their communities in many cases never occurred. It says the underlying tensions that led to the violence have not been addressed. It urges the government to make greater efforts to anticipate and prepare for any future attacks.

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