S Africa migrants battle rising persecution

Murder of Somali draws ire of foreign African nationals over rising xenophobic violence.

map xenophobic violence south africa
Violence against migrants has flared in recent weeks, especially in some of South Africa's poor areas

A spokesperson from the South African government has responded to this article. Read it here.

Johannesburg, South Africa – In a country with a history of violence like South Africa, there are few scenes of brutality that can still shock the nation.

The video that emerged on YouTube last weekend of a Somali man lying flat in a Port Elizabeth street has shocked many South Africans out of a general complacence over the rising incidence of violence against foreigners in the country.

The man, who was stripped naked, his genitals pelted with rocks, stones smashed over his head all the while receiving kicks to the face, became the latest victim of xenophobic violence in the country.

The 25-year-old man, Abdi Nasir Mahmoud Good, died of his injuries. Good is just one of the victims of the xenophobic violence that flared through northern Port Elizabeth and up to four other towns and cities across the country last week.

Five other Somalis were injured in the violence and almost every Somali-owned business in Port Elizabeth’s Booysen Park was burned or looted.

Good’s family said he had been trying to salvage his goods in the small store he owned in Booysens Park when he met the ire of a mob.

National problem

Before the wave of violence hit Port Elizabeth, the sprawling township of Diepsloot in Johannesburg was a scene of chaos after a Somali shopkeeper killed two Zimbabweans he suspected to be thieves on the evening of Sunday, May 26.

Angered by the shootings, Diepsloot residents turned their attention on the Somalis, Pakistanis and other foreign nationals doing business in the township. Nineteen foreign-owned stores were attacked in a frenzy of xenophobic violence and looting over the next two days.

Though calm has been restored to Diepsloot, the Somali store at the centre of the issue remains closed. A co-owner of the store, Amina Hassan Abdi, a Somali woman who fled the conflict in the Horn of Africa in 2007, said the violence essentially destroyed her livelihood.

Timeline: Migrant violence

2008: Over 60 people killed and thousands displaced in violence across the country. 

2009: 2500 immigrants (mostly Zimbabweans) were displaced in the farming town of De Doorns in the Western Cape after riots against them.

2010: The South African government formed the inter-ministerial committee on xenophobia.

2011: Around 120 foreign nationals killed, of which five were burnt alive.

2012: 140 foreign nationals killed and 250 others injured in violent attacks across the country

2013 March: More than 25 Somali-owned shops were looted in Mamelodi outside of Pretoria; Five Pakistani nationals were murdered in Mitchells Plain.

May: Somali man stoned and hacked to death in Port Elizabeth, five other Somalis injured but scores of shops looted in up to 4 towns and cities.

“You need money to open the shop again and I now have none,” she said. Abdi also previously worked as a street vendor in Diepsloot. She said the discrimination she faced every day forced her to give up her stall.

“I don’t look like a South African and I wear this,” she said, pointing to her hijab.

“Every day I was getting too much trouble, people were swearing me, they were shouting me, stealing my stuff … they don’t like us,” she said.

Just days before the looting of Somali-owned stores in Diepsloot, some 60 km south of Johannesburg, in the township of Sebokeng, foreign-owned stores were also systematically looted after a protest against poor governance in the area catalysed into a campaign to root out foreigners and foreign-owned businesses from the township.

By the time the police stepped in, all foreign-owned stores had been looted, the belongings of foreign nationals were burned and foreigners were driven out of the township.

Despite the targeting, the South African government has been quick to caution against labelling this surge in violence as xenophobia because “preliminary evidence indicates that these acts may be driven primarily by criminality”.

Al Jazeera requested comment repeatedly from the office of South Africa’s president of the department of home affairs and the South African police services, but recieved no response. 

Labelling the violence as just crime creates a false debate, said Biniam Misgun, lecturer in the School of Sociology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in Durban.

“When you see a group intentionally attacked and their shops looted because they are foreign, then you cannot just say it’s criminality driving this,” Misgun told Al Jazeera. 

Misgun’s assertions that these are hate crimes are corroborated by statistics. In 2011, around 120 foreign nationals were killed, of whom five were burnt alive. In 2012, 140 foreigners were killed and 250 others injured in violent attacks across the country, reported the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) in Johannesburg.

In 2013, the Centre estimates that at least three attacks on foreigners take place weekly.

Complex issue

Understanding the context of xenophobic sentiment in the grand intersection of race and class in a South Africa mired by a complex social and economic history is difficult.

As the largest economy on the continent, South Africa has attracted foreign Africans from as far afield as Nigeria, Ethiopia, the DR Congo and as close as neighbouring Botswana. They come as political refugees or economic migrants, with one goal: a better life. Following the end of apartheid in 1994, thousands of Chinese and South Asian foreign nationals have been living and conducting business across the country.

Instead of South Africans thriving on its much-vaunted multicultural identity, foreigners have been painted in the popular imagination as criminals, job snatchers, and parasites arriving in throngs to eat at an economy battling to feed its own people.

New research released last month from the Southern African Migration Programme (SAMP) found that more than 50 percent of South Africans believed foreigners constituted a majority of the country’s population. In reality, foreign nationals amount to less than five percent, or 2.2 million people out of a population of around 50 million.

The SAMP study, investigating the incidence of xenophobia in South Africa after the horrific attacks of 2008 which killed more than 60 people, also debunks the popular notion that xenophobia was a disease of the poor.

That these attacks are taking place in already rough neighborhoods is worth remembering, Loren Landau, director of the African Centre of Migration and Society (ACMS) in Johannesburg, said.

The study found that xenophobia is firmly embedded across all economic and social strata of South African society but with incidents of violence are more likely in impoverished areas where a riot can sometimes be the only way to the draw government attention.

Government attitude

Researchers suggest that the root of the problem lies with the government’s attitude to foreigners, especially foreign African nationals.

Foreign nationals entering the country and trying to integrate into society narrate tales of daily strife with authorities. They report harassment at police stations, neglect at hospitals and abuse at immigration offices.

Abuse is widespread, migrants said. Last Monday, in the midst of this upsurge in violence against foreign nationals, security staff at an office of the Department of Home Affairs turned a fire hose on hundreds of refugees queuing to renew their documents.

Businesses owned by foreigners have been attacked  [Al Jazeera]

The cold sting meted out to the hundreds of refugees, many of whom are forced to queue for weeks in order to renew their temporary asylum seeker’s documents, is just part of a daily digest of humiliation endured by foreign nationals.

Abdi, the Somali businesswoman in Diepsloot, said that her son’s asylum seeker certificate was stolen when her store was looted. Police, however, refused to allow her to open a case of theft or compile an affidavit attesting to the theft of the documents in order for the Department of Home Affairs to issue her son new set of documents.

“When I went to Diepsloot police on Friday they said it is too late [to open] the case,” she said. “Then I said, okay, I want to make affidavit but they said, ‘No, go to Home Affairs’”. Home Affairs, she said will want to see proof from the South African Police Services that the documents were indeed stolen.

This is how the trouble starts, researchers said. “The way the state treats foreign nationals essentially represents the way ordinary people treat foreign nationals,” Misgun adds.

Despite attracting the biggest number of asylum seekers in the world, The Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) found that South Africans receive foreigners with a jaundiced eye.

It is a tenuous contradiction, activists said. “On one hand, South Africa wants to promote solidarity and unity on the African continent and yet there is move towards a more restrictive asylum regime,” Sicel’mpilo Shange-Buthane, executive director of the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants (CoRMSA), in Johannesburg, told Al Jazeera.

Shange-Buthane said the government’s move to shift reception centres for refugees from the city centre to the border regions sends a clear message: “We don’t want refugees in the cities.” This gives credence to the findings of the SAMP survey that 63 percent of South Africans wanted electrified fences on the country’s borders.

With just one perpetuator brought to justice for the 2008 violence, the South African judiciary is allowing for a culture of impunity to settle, as the foreigner is institutionalised as a soft target, unlikely to enjoy state protection on any level, said Landau of the ACMS.

Social integration

On Sunday the Somali president urged South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma to investigate the killing of Abdi Nasir Mahmoud Good, the Somali trader. Experts and activists said little is likely to change, unless and until African leaders threaten economic consequences to South Africa’s expanding operations across the continent; by their own admission a shot in the dark.

As of now, there remains little incentive for local politicians to demand their communities to respect foreigners when they are unable to provide services or at least better reasons for their inability to deliver. Little wonder, then, that more than 60 percent surveyed in the SAMP report believe that violence against foreigners usually occurs because of the latter’s penchant for crime or taking away jobs from South Africans.

With national elections due in 2014, addressing the concerns of foreigners is unlikely to feature prominently on the electorate’s wish list. The solution, Landau said, involves focusing on building “a more equitable society where economic rights are applied equally”.

Misgun, the lecturer in Sociology agrees that focusing on shifting attitudes without improving peoples’ lives is counterproductive.

He expressed the view of many researchers when he said: “If people were not fighting over a bag of corn or sugar, it [the situation] might be a little different.” 

Follow Azad Essa @azadessa and Khadija Patel @khadijapatel on Twitter

Source: Al Jazeera