Migrants in South Africa continue to be threatened by discrimination and violence against foreigners, despite pledges by the government and law enforcement agencies to put a stop to it, say analysts and human rights and immigrant groups.
Roni Amit, a senior researcher at the Center for African Migration and Society at Wits University in Johannesburg, said the response by the South African authorities to the xenophobic attacks in parts of the country in 2008 had been “largely ineffective.”
Four years ago, images of mobs of enraged South Africans brutalizing foreigners were beamed to televisions around the world. More than 60 migrants were killed and many injured, most of them from African nations.
Since then the government and the police have insisted that they’re doing all they can to protect foreigners. But hardly a week passes without a report of migrants being attacked and even murdered somewhere in South Africa.
The presence of the foreigners in the country’s impoverished townships is resented by some locals, who claim that the migrants are increasing the suffering of poor South Africans by competing for scarce resources and jobs.
According to the United Nations, South Africa, Africa’s strongest economy, receives the most applications for asylum in the world. There’s currently a backlog of more than 400,000 such submissions.
The center said there are between four and five million documented and undocumented migrants in South Africa. The government insisted that the figure is far higher, but did not provide an estimate.
Amit said Somali migrants in particular are suffering “disproportionately” at the moment, especially in the poor areas around Cape Town where many have spaza shops. These sell a variety of small, basic common goods, such as tinned food, soap and paraffin.
In recent times, groups of people have attacked, looted and burned stores owned by Somalis. Some of the migrants have been robbed while going to buy supplies; others have been shot and stabbed to death.
“There is a lot of crime in South Africa but the attacks on Somalis are happening at a high level – that tells us that this is not normal crime,” said Hussein Omar, a spokesman for the Somali Association of South Africa. He continued, “[A few days ago] about five [Somali traders] were attacked and killed while they were busy in their shops…. There were [car] hijackings also, a lot of hijackings…and robbery.”
Amit recently completed a study of Somali businesses and their owners. She said the nature of the threats against the migrants has changed.
In 2008, haphazard mobs of poor South Africans randomly attacked migrants. But now, said Amit, the violence appears to be well organized.
“A lot of the attacks are really from competing businesses and competing South African shopkeepers. It’s those businesspeople who are leading the xenophobic attacks,” the researcher said.
Omar responded, “I don’t think it is pure and simple South African businessmen organizing the attacks. We think there are bigger figures who are not working at the local levels, where the Somalis are, who are behind the attacks. But at this stage we can’t prove anything; we need the police to investigate.”
Bigger conspiracy suspected
Omar said many Somalis suspect that powerful political and business figures in the Western Cape province are backing the violence against them.
“These criminal and opportunistic elements who are attacking us are well known.
The police know them. The community knows them. But the cases are not investigated properly. And that’s why we think there is a high influence behind this…. The [answer] we are looking for is who is behind these criminal elements?”
Several local politicians and business groups have made statements that have upset local Somalis.
In October 2011, then national police commissioner and leading member of the ruling African National Congress [ANC] party Bheki Cele announced that foreign spaza shop owners had “economically displaced” South Africans. He warned that his compatriots could “revolt” if this situation didn’t change.
In June, ANC provincial secretary Songezo Mjongile said it was “unnatural that almost all shops in townships are owned by foreigners…. It creates tension. If we are not attending to it, it becomes a source of division.”
Then, Loyiso Doyi, a member of a retailers’ association in one of Cape Town’s biggest townships, Khayelitsha, said, “Foreigners do not empower local citizens. They employ their own. We suggested to them to sit down and discuss joint ventures and working together. We don’t want to chase them out, but the government seems not willing to assist us. There are over 600 foreigner spaza shops in Khayelitsha. Can you imagine how locals could survive? They are killing locals.”
Although Cele, Mjongile and Doyi condemned violence against foreigners, Omar maintained that statements like theirs endanger migrants.
“When such high ranking people talk like this, it makes the danger that certain elements will think it is okay to attack Somali traders – because a senior person accused them of taking business away from South Africans,” he said. “It really saddens us that politicians, instead of putting their weight behind finding solutions, they create more problems.”
In the recent past police officers have stood by and watched as mobs have looted and razed Somali stores, while the migrants cowered behind the law enforcement officials.
“In some areas I know the police are doing nothing and the criminals are just moving freely, while the traders can identify who comes to [attack] them, how they look and all that, and we’re not seeing the police doing anything,” said Omar.
“Unfortunately the South African police aren’t taking a very effective stance in terms of their response,” said Amit. “These shops will be looted and the police will view their responsibility as saving lives but not saving property.”
Amit added, “People [foreigners] get intimidating letters saying ‘leave your shops by a certain day or else’ and the police don’t respond to that. Or they’ll respond by ordering the migrants to leave their shops and this just reinforces the efforts of the people who are attacking the migrants’ businesses. They feel they can attack the migrants and it’s legitimate because nothing is being done to stop them.”
Omar said the police sometimes order the Somali traders to close their shops in the evenings, the most profitable time of the day, while the businesses of their South African competitors stay open.
“They’re only telling the Somali shop owners to close and then [when the Somalis refuse to close] the police come and they spray teargas on them,” he said.
Omar insisted that in some areas, instead of protecting Somali businesspeople, local authorities were participating in their “oppression.”
“The local government and the police in some areas are coming and harassing the Somali businesses and making threatening letters and trying to make by-laws that [are] targeting the Somali traders. That also tells us that there is another influence, a higher influence, which is also behind this.”
The South African Police Service [SAPS] denied launching discriminatory, selective operations against foreigners. It said it is dedicated to protecting all life, regardless of differences such as nationality. The SAPS maintained it is investigating crimes against Somalis.
Omar responded, “I have to mention that there are some areas where the police did a very good job and things improved very well. The harmony and security has improved greatly.... They investigate very well, they listen to our complaints and they follow up. They’re working with the local communities to identify the criminals and the criminals were apprehended.”
But Amit said arrests such as these aren’t resulting in criminal prosecutions and South Africans who attack and even murder migrants often enjoy impunity.
She pointed out that only one person had been tried and convicted of killing a foreigner during the 2008 xenophobic attacks, despite the fact that scores of migrants were murdered and hundreds more injured in multiple incidents across South Africa.
Amit added, “Then again, in terms of the research I’ve done with the Somali shopkeepers and the violence against them, there are almost no prosecutions in those cases either.”
Somalis leaving South Africa
The researcher said some Somali migrants are returning to their homeland as war ebbs but economic depression remains, because of the threats against them in South Africa.
“They think it’s safer in Somalia than it is in South Africa,” said Amit.
Omar said some Somalis are indeed leaving South Africa, but not many.
“Generally those who are here, and especially those who have been here for a long time and have built lives here, it’s not very easy for them to go back to Somalia,” he explained. “What I am sure of is that there’s no more this heavy stream of Somalis coming to South Africa like there was when all the wars were there [in Somalia]. So there are some people going back, but not many coming here anymore.”
Omar said all he and his fellow Somalis are asking for is to be treated “justly and fairly” and for recognition that they’re not “parasites” and are contributing to South Africa’s economy.
He commented, “There is a big reason why you do not see any Somalis begging on the streets of South Africa. We are hard workers. I think even our enemies know that.”
They may indeed know it, but do they care? When VOA put this to Omar, he was silent for a moment. Then he replied, “Maybe it is only God who cares about such things.”