News / Africa

Specter of Xenophobia Haunts South Africa

Darren Taylor
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.

Somalis targeted

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.”

Police inaction

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.

No prosecutions

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.”
Listen to report on xenophobia in South Africa (Darren Taylor)
Listen to report on xenophobia in South Africa (Darren Taylor)i
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

You May Like

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the US are seeing gas prices dip below $3 a gallon More

Afghan Women's Soccer Team Building for the Future

A four-team female league was recently set up in Kabul; It will help identify players for the national team More

Video Koreas on Edge Amid Live-fire Drills

Pyongyang threatens nuclear test as joint US, S. Korean exercises show forces’ capabilities More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Don Quioxte from: South Africa
November 28, 2012 2:36 AM
PS Mr. Taylor. I wish you a merry Christmas Somali influx [invasion] in your neighbourhood. As much as it will open your eyes, it sure will make you close your nose and ears.


by: Don Quioxte from: South Africa
November 28, 2012 2:20 AM
What's the matter folks ?? My comment not pc, hypocritical, or delusional lefty for you ?? If you can't stand the heat then stay out of the kitchen and keep your uninformed, blinkered, bleeding hearts comments to yourselves if you are not going to post the response.


by: Don Quioxte from: South Africa
November 28, 2012 2:02 AM
We have enough aliens and no work. It all leads to more crime and a drain on resources. Keep the 'xenos' out and there will be no 'phobia'.
Somalis are the last thing you want in your country anyway.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Skateboard Defies Gravityi
X
November 21, 2014 5:07 AM
A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Gay Evangelicals Argue That Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality

More than 30 U.S. states now recognize same-sex marriages, and an increasing number of mainline American churches are blessing them. But evangelical church members- which account for around 30 percent of the U.S. adult population - believe the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender evangelicals are coming out. Backed by a prominent evangelical scholar, they argue that the traditional reading of the bible is wrong.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Mexico Protests Escalate Over Disappearances

Protests in Mexico over 43 students missing since September continue to escalate, reflecting growing anger among Mexicans about a political system they view as corrupt, and increasingly tainted by the drug trade. Mounting outrage over the disappearances is now focused on the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, accused of not doing enough to end insecurity in the country. More from VOA's Victoria Macchi.
Video

Video US Senate Votes Down Controversial Oil Pipeline - For Now

The U.S. Senate has rejected construction of a controversial pipeline to transport Canadian oil to American refineries. The $5 billion project still could be approved next year, but it faces a possible veto by President Barack Obama. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the pipeline has exposed deep divisions in Congress about America’s energy future.
Video

Video Can Minsk Cease-fire Agreement Hold?

Growing tensions between government troops and separatists in eastern Ukraine further threaten a cease-fire agreement reached two months ago in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Critics of U.S. policy in Ukraine say it is time the Obama administration gives up on that much-violated cease-fire and moves toward a new deal with Russia. VOA's Scott Stearns has more.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Ferguson Church Grapples with Race Relations

Many white residents of Ferguson, Missouri, say they chose to live there because of the American Midwest community's diversity. So, they were shocked when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in August – and shaken by the resulting protests and violence. Some local churches are leading conversations on how to go forward. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid