The U.N. refugee agency is describing as “xenophobic” this week’s violence in a rural area northeast of Cape Town, South Africa. Xenophobia is a term meaning fear of foreigners.
On Tuesday, local workers in De Doorns drove some 3,000 foreigners from their shacks, accusing them of stealing their jobs at vineyards by accepting lower wages.
The UNHCR has set up tents at a sports field as temporary housing for the displaced, and negotiations are underway to solve the problem.
“We condemn the attacks on the foreigners,” says UNHCR spokesperson Tina Ghelli says. ”We have provided support to the local government in order to respond to the humanitarian needs of those people who’ve been displaced.”
Living in tents
“We’re providing 300 tents, family tents, which should arrive today. Initially, the local municipality provided three marquis tents that can host about a thousand people each. For protection reasons and to ensure the safety of women and children, it’s better to have individual family tents. So we’re providing those,” she says.
UNHCR representatives are also on the committee set up local officials to mediate the dispute.
“There was an initial meeting yesterday and I think there’ll be another meeting on Monday with the local community. And we’re doing that in collaboration with the South African Human Rights Committee,” she says.
“It’s a mixed population made up of migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers…. Under South African law, refugees and asylum seekers have the right to work in South Africa,” she says.
She says there’s great competition for jobs in South Africa, where the unemployment rate is very high. Over the past two years, there have been several incidents in which foreigners have been targeted.
UNHCR does not have an exact number of refugees in South Africa, saying those statistics are maintained by the government.
“We do know that over 200,000 people requested asylum in South Africa last year. And of those, about 100,000 are from Zimbabwe. The others are mainly from Somalia, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Angola,” she says.
Ghelli appealed for a peaceful solution.
"People, if they have differences with foreigners living in their communities, they should not choose violence as a solution. They should try to discuss it with the local authorities and have meetings together with the foreigners so that any differences that they have or misunderstandings between them can be sorted out before it escalates into violence,” she says.
A closer look at De Doorns
VOA reporter Delia Robertson, who’s following the story, says of the tensions, “I think they’ve probably come to the fore quite recently. As you know, South Africa is feeling the impact of the global economic…and De Doorns is a farming community and quite poor.”
She says the lack of jobs as “propelled the current crisis.” But is the violence xenophobia or a dispute over jobs?
“I think to say it’s xenophobic, simply that and nothing else, is fairly simplistic. I think it’s a much more complex issue. And I think it is very much competition over a few jobs,” she says.
“What appears to have happened is that belief has arisen amongst South Africans living in the area, who are poor and in need of work, that farmers in the area are employing Zimbabweans and paying them less than the minimum wage that is prescribed in South African law,” Robertson says.
It’s unclear, she says, where that’s true. However, she adds, “certainly that’s a perception that has arisen and consequently resentment has come along with that. It wouldn’t be unusual for farmers to do that. It has happened elsewhere in South Africa,” she says.