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

    California Republicans Mull Choices in Presidential Race

    Ted Cruz tells state's Republican Convention delegates campaign will be 'battle on the ground, district by district by district,' ahead of June 7 primary

    Video Kurdish Football Team Helps War-Torn City Cope

    With conflict still raging across much of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, many Kurds are trying to escape turmoil by focusing on success of football team Amedspor

    South African Company Designs Unique Solar Cooker

    Two-man team of solar power technologists introduces Sol4, hot plate that heats up so fast it’s like cooking with gas or electricity

    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.
    Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensionsi
    X
    April 29, 2016 12:28 AM
    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensions

    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Bangladesh Targeted Killings Spark Wave of Fear

    People in Bangladesh’s capital are expressing deep concern over the brutal attacks that have killed secular blogger, and most recently a gay rights activist and an employee of the U.S. embassy. Xulhaz Mannan, an embassy protocol officer and the editor of the country’s only gay and transgender magazine Roopban; and his friend Mehboob Rabbi Tanoy, a gay rights activist, were hacked to death by five attackers in Mannan’s Dhaka home earlier this month.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.
    Video

    Video West Urges Unity in Libya as Migrant Numbers Soar

    The Italian government says a NATO-led mission aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Libya to Europe could be up and running by July. There are concerns that the number of migrants could soar as the route through Greece and the Balkans remains blocked. Western powers say the political chaos in Libya is being exploited by people smugglers — and they are pressuring rival groups to come together under the new unity government. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Russia’s TV Rain Swims Against Tide in Sea of Kremlin Propaganda

    Russia’s media freedoms have been gradually eroded under President Vladimir Putin as his government has increased state ownership, influence, and restrictions on critical reporting. Television, where most Russians get their news, has been the main target and is now almost completely state controlled. But in the Russian capital, TV Rain stands out as an island in a sea of Kremlin propaganda.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora