By Annalise Kempen
Some call it a new form of Apartheid ... some call it an excuse for criminality. Given the massive migration seen in the past decade throughout the world, and despite xenophobia not being unique to South Africa, it seems that it is a phenomenon that is extremely hard to tackle and get viable solutions for. It is a phenomenon where the dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries seems to increase with time.
It seems that every year or so, South Africa experiences an outbreak of xenophobia. Why it happens, often out of the blue, is a difficult question to answer. One of the latest incidents happened towards the end of February 2017, when scores of seemingly foreign-owned shops in Atteridgeville and Lotus Gardens were damaged and looted. Chances that every single one of the affected shops was being owned by foreigners, are highly unlikely.
Also in February 2017, four brothels were set alight by angry community members in Rosettenville, Johannesburg. The mayor of Johannesburg, Mr Herman Mashaba said in a statement at the time that according to community members, these homes were illegally occupied by Nigerian foreign nationals who run the homes as brothels and have girls as young as nine years old working as prostitutes. Many of the women in these brothels are also alleged to have no official identification documentation.
Apart from social issues such as promoting social decay through their brothels or making money from South Africans which locals seemingly have a problem with and which then result in violence against foreigners, we must try and find more reasons why this violence flares up out of nowhere.
Where and why did it all start?
South Africa experienced an increase in xenophobic attacks since the transition to democracy in 1994, including verbal and non-verbal abuse and the destruction of foreigners’ homes and businesses. While Apartheid was still in force, xenophobia was expressed through laws and policy which led to strict controls of anyone who was different (not white) (Kruger, 1969). When Apartheid came to an end, McKnight (2008) concludes that the hatred against foreigners was replacing the divide between white and black South Africans.
Shockingly, a South African Migration Project (SAMP) survey of 2001 showed that 21% of South Africans wanted a complete ban on the entry of foreigners, whilst 75% wanted strict limits on entry (Crush and Pendleton, 2004). Respondents in the survey were asked what, if anything, they had to fear about people from neighbouring countries, resulting in 48% noting that they felt that migrants were a criminal threat, compared to 37% who thought they were a threat to jobs and the economy and 29% who thought they were a health threat. The simplistic, and largely unsubstantiated, association of foreignness with criminality, job-stealing and disease is echoed in the rhetoric of the state and the media. Comments made by senior officials in those years added fuel to fire regarding the attitude towards foreigners. One such a person was Billy Masethla, the controversial Director-General of Home Affairs at the time, who made the extraordinary claim before the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs in March 2002, that “approximately 90% of foreign persons, who are in the RSA with fraudulent documents, ie either citizenship or migration documents, are involved in other crimes as well ... it is quicker to charge these criminals for their false documentation and then to deport them than to pursue the long route in respect of the other crimes that are committed,” he said. No wonder, ordinary citizens, in time, built up an intolerance towards foreigners.
Attacks become deadly
In May 2008, there was a culmination of feelings when attacks against foreigners became so violent that the police needed assistance from armed forces to quell the violence. At least 62 people lost their lives, 670 were injured, dozens were raped and approximately 100 000 were displaced during attacks that started in Alexandra, before spreading to the rest of Gauteng (Landau, 2009). Many of these victims were foreigners or South Africans who had married foreigners or even people from neighbouring provinces!