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

    US Leaders Who Served in Vietnam War Look Back and Ahead

    In New York Times opinion piece, Secretary of State John Kerry, Senator John McCain and former Senator Bob Kerrey say as US strengthens relations with Vietnam, it is important to remember lessons learned from war

    Who Are US Allies in Fight Against Islamic State?

    There is little but opportunism keeping coalition together analysts warn — SDFs Arab militias are not united even among themselves, frequently squabble and don’t share Kurds' vision for post-Assad Syria

    Learning Foreign Language Helps US Soldiers Bridge Culture Gap

    Effective interaction with local populations part of everyday curriculum at Monterey, California, Defense Language Institute

    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.

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnami
    X
    Elizabeth Lee
    May 22, 2016 6:04 AM
    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnam

    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video First-generation, Afghan-American Student Sets Sights on Basketball Glory

    Their parents are immigrants to the United States. They are kids who live between two worlds -- their parents' homeland and the U.S. For many of them, they feel most "American" at school. It can be tricky balancing both worlds. In this report, produced by Beth Mendelson, Arash Arabasadi tells us about one Afghan-American student who seems to be coping -- one shot at a time.
    Video

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    While universities across the United States honor their newest graduates this Friday, many immigrants in downtown Manhattan are celebrating, too. One hundred of them, representing 31 countries across four continents, graduated as U.S. citizens, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in New York and cities around the country.
    Video

    Video Vietnam Sees Strong Economic Growth Despite Incomplete Reforms

    Vietnam has transformed its communist economy to become one of the world's fastest-growing nations. While the reforms are incomplete, multinational corporations see a profitable future in Vietnam and have made major investments -- as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
    Video

    Video Qatar Denies World Cup Corruption

    The head of Qatar’s organizing committee for the 2022 World Cup insists his country's bid to host the soccer tournament was completely clean, despite the corruption scandals that have rocked the sport’s governing body, FIFA. Hassan Al-Thawadi also said new laws would offer protection to migrants working on World Cup construction projects. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Infrastructure Funding Puts Cambodia on Front Line of International Politics

    When leaders of the world’s seven most developed economies meet in Japan next week, demands for infrastructure investment world wide will be high on the agenda. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for “quality infrastructure investment” throughout Asia has been widely viewed as a counter to the rise of Chinese investment flooding into region.
    Video

    Video Democrats Fear Party Unity a Casualty in Clinton-Sanders Battle

    Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton claimed a narrow victory in Tuesday's Kentucky primary even as rival Bernie Sanders won in Oregon. Tensions between the two campaigns are rising, prompting fears that the party will have a difficult time unifying to face the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Portrait of a Transgender Marriage: Husband and Wife Navigate New Roles

    As controversy continues in North Carolina over the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals, personal struggles with gender identity that were once secret are now coming to light. VOA’s Tina Trinh explored the ramifications for one couple as part of trans.formation, a series of stories on transgender issues.
    Video

    Video Amerikan Hero Flips Stereotype of Middle Eastern Character

    An Iranian American comedian is hoping to connect with American audiences through a film that inverts some of Hollywood's stereotypes about Middle Eastern characters. Sama Dizayee reports.
    Video

    Video Budding Young Inventors Tackle City's Problems with 3-D Printing

    Every city has problems, and local officials and politicians are often frustrated by their inability to solve them. But surprising solutions can come from unexpected places. Students in Baltimore. Maryland, took up the challenge to solve problems they identified in their city, and came up with projects and products to make a difference. VOA's June Soh has more on a digital fabrication competition primarily focused on 3-D design and printing. Carol Pearson narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora