Response to Al Jazeera: Article on South Africa ‘far from reality’

An Al Jazeera feature published on June 6 paints an incorrect picture of the state of social relations in South Africa.

Youth Day Is Celebrated in South Africa
"South Africa allows and welcomes foreign nationals" and has "strived to build a society based on the values of unity and togetherness", writes Williams [Getty]

It is regrettable that the Al Jazeera report on June 6, 2012 titled: “S Africa migrants battle rising persecution“, by Khadija Patel and Azad Essa, paints an incorrect picture of the state of social relations in South Africa. The picture painted by this article is far from reality.

The social integration of foreign nationals in societies is not unique to South Africa: it is a global challenge that the world is still grappling with. In today’s globalised society, it is common to find foreign nationals living in peace and harmony in most large cities across the world. However, worldwide there are times when social tensions boil over, resulting in violence or criminal acts.

The isolated incidents of violence and looting in Gauteng and in Port Elizabeth against foreign nationals is a case of individuals taking advantage of incidents of conflict to further their criminal intents.

The South African government states unequivocally that any attacks on foreign nationals are totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated. South Africa is a multicultural and increasingly cosmopolitan society that welcomes and promotes interaction among people of different backgrounds. South Africa is by and large a tolerant society.

It should be noted that the South African government moved swiftly to condemn the acts of crime and violence. Speedy action by our police has seen the arrest of about 100 people following the recent incidents. In South Africa, cases of criminality are dealt with by our criminal justice system, and those found guilty of crimes face the full might of the law.

The South African Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, Jeff Radebe, said that the attacks on foreign nationals was a matter of grave concern, and reiterated that the attacks were perpetrated by criminal elements. While I myself, the acting Cabinet spokesperson, emphasised that the looting of foreign-owned shops was pure criminal activities.

South Africa prides itself on welcoming all visitors to our country, including foreign nationals who seek asylum. Since the birth of democracy in 1994, we have strived to build a society based on the values of unity and togetherness. These same values are evident in our dealings with foreign nationals in South Africa.

South Africa is a signatory to the Geneva Protocol on Refugees and is committed to protect all foreign nationals in the country. As a signatory to this Protocol, and as a country that cherishes human rights, we have to protect the basic rights of every human being within our borders, including foreign nationals. Our government will do everything within the law to ensure the safety of all citizens and foreign nationals irrespective of their status.

Our own legislation on refugees was finalised in 1998 with the promulgation of the Refugees Act of 1998. This legislation governs the rules and regulations regarding asylum seekers.

South Africa is indeed a tolerant society and the isolated incidents should not deter anyone from visiting our country or choose our country as their home.

The South African constitution is also based on principles of tolerance and upholds the rights of every South African citizen and any foreign national who is in our country.

South Africa allows and welcomes foreign nationals in our country with valid documentation such as a passport or a visa. According to the South African Department of Home Affairs, there are a growing number of people who want to enter South Africa as refugees or asylum seekers. They can apply for refugee status to give them legal standing in the country.

Persons with refugee status in South Africa can access most of the same rights and opportunities as South African citizens.

It is therefore not uncommon to find businesses operated by foreign nationals. In many cases these businesses are contributing to the local economy and providing a vital service to members of the community.

This is the true state of relations with other nationalities living within our borders. The criminal actions by a handful of perpetrators will not shift us from our vision of creating non-racial, non-sexist state with and a better life for all. As South Africans, it is our shared duty to be vigilant and to act against people who manufacture issues of conflict for their own aims.

On May 25, South Africa joined the rest of the African continent in celebration of Africa Day and once again reaffirmed the spirit of brotherhood and unity that binds us together on the continent. This government will never allow criminals to drive a wedge between ourselves and our African brothers and sisters. This was reinforced by President Jacob Zuma in a statement on this occasion, when he said: “As South Africa on this day we must also dedicate ourselves to unity, kinship and tolerance. We must work hard to eradicate from our society all forms of xenophobia, racism and related intolerances.”

We remain firm in our commitment to ensuring that any form of violence against any person residing in South Africa will not be tolerated. Working together with civil society organisations and law enforcement agencies, we are committed to make South Africa a safer place for all.

The lessons from the unfortunate and isolated incidents of violence and murder against foreign nationals in 2008 have not gone unheeded. The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development has recorded 597 cases relating to attacks on foreign nationals since May 2008 and about 1,700 persons were arrested in these cases. In addition, the South African Police Service has established a desk to monitor crimes against foreign nationals to ensure speedy action.

The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development is finalising a policy on foreign language interpreters intended to establish best practices, including the availability of foreign language interpreters for swift justice.

In line with our commitment to justice and equality for all, South Africa has established equality courts throughout the country. These courts protect human rights in respect of equality and non-discrimination, including the right to be protected from discrimination on the grounds of nationality.

The South African government remains committed to the values of democracy, equality, fairness and unity that marked the birth of our democratic dispensation in 1994. Incidents that stray from these ideals have no place in our society. South Africa is indeed a tolerant society and isolated incidents should not deter anyone from visiting our country or choose our country as their home. Our government will not tolerate these acts of criminality and has proven over time that is has the capability to deal with these acts as they take place.

Phumla Williams is the acting head of South African government communications.