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Is South Africa Prepared for the Next Wave of Xenophobic Violence?

A woman waves a South African flag as she attends Freedom Day celebrations in Kwa-Thema Township, near Johannesburg. (File photo: April 27, 2019) © AP Photo/Denis Farrell

When I met a Zimbabwean truck driver, Tinei Takawira, in Durban last year, he was recovering from life-threatening injuries. He told me that on 25 March 2019, a man who was part of a protesting group of locals knifed him in the stomach, in broad daylight as the police looked on. The police did not apprehend the attackers or help him get medical care.

The group was protesting foreign truck drivers working in South Africa. He told me he was shocked at the police inaction. Takawira said that the police took information from him about the stabbing three months later, but had not provided a reference number for his case or any updates. Takawira is still waiting for justice.

Over the last year, while researching xenophobic violence in South Africa for Human Rights Watch, I repeatedly heard similar stories. There appears to be a vicious cycle: it starts with impoverished citizens, angry at their sub-par economic and living conditions and the authorities’ failure to resolve the perennial problems of  chronically high unemployment, high crime rates, and poor public services.

Then the aggrieved citizens receive tacit encouragement from public officials to deflect the blame to foreign nationals considered as competitors for the limited available opportunities. Finally they take the law into their own hands. They plan and carry out mob attacks against the foreign nationals, and rarely suffer any consequences.

The victims of xenophobic violence have often found that   law enforcement officials responded to attacks with indifference and showed little interest in pursuing the cases. In the same vein, government and law enforcement officials have often denied that such attacks were xenophobic in nature, insisting instead that they were routine criminal acts. This lack of acknowledgment of the true nature of the problem has encouraged impunity, and people operating in mobs have been allowed to act as if they were above the law. Lack of accountability emboldens bad behavior and makes it only a matter of time before there is another wave of xenophobic violence.

Virtually no one has been brought to justice for past outbreaks of xenophobic violence, including the 2008 attacks that resulted in the deaths of more than 60 people across the country. The same is true for the April 2015 violence in Durban that led to the displacement of thousands of foreign nationals, or the violence against foreign truck drivers and others last year that resulted in the deaths of at least 200 people. Local groups that could incite violence are openly mobilizing and whipping up xenophobic sentiments. One such group organizing under the slogan “Put South Africans First” marched to the Nigerian Embassy in Pretoria last month, demanding that foreign nationals be sent ‘home.’

In addition to the xenophobic violence, many foreign nationals in South Africa, particularly asylum seekers and refugees, face difficulties in acquiring and renewing documentation to maintain legal status to remain in South Africa. This in turn makes it harder for them to access education, health care, and other basic services. This also creates key barriers to accessing justice, which means that the path toward accountability for xenophobia, and therefore for ending it, remains uncertain.

In March 2019, the South African government introduced its National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (NAP). Among other actions the NAP identifies steps to be taken to combat xenophobia, including creating systems to ensure that  foreigners receive services they are entitled to, facilitating their integration, and embracing a humane and dignified approach to managing migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

But the NAP has not managed to stop the waves of xenophobic violence. At Human Rights Watch we highlighted, in our latest report on South Africa, some of the large scale and more individual experiences of xenophobia, discrimination, and barriers experienced by non-nationals in the year after  the NAP was introduced, as well as the, at best, anemic response by the government.

A lot still needs to be done to end xenophobic violence and discrimination against foreign nationals, including holding those responsible for violent attacks to account in fair, credible trials and sanctioning public officials who propagate inciteful rhetoric against foreign nationals. Carrying out the NAP should include steps to improve accountability for abusers motivated by xenophobia and ensure justice for its victims. Potential measures include creating a dedicated portal or contact for non-South African nationals to report xenophobic incidents and standardizing how officials record and respond to instances of xenophobia across provinces, stations, and community policing structures.

When incidents motivated by xenophobia or that disproportionately affect non-nationals occur, the South African government should openly speak out against xenophobia, seek accountability, and promote inclusivity and cohesion. The fact that crimes against non-nationals may be, and are often, motivated by xenophobia should be recognized as an important element in the investigation and prosecution of such crimes.

The authorities should ensure that when suspects are identified in crimes, including property damage and public violence, against non-nationals, there are effective investigations and that the suspects are appropriately charged and prosecuted. To stem the trend toward lack of accountability for these crimes, the authorities should organize interactive and recurring training on racism, xenophobia, and implicit biases for law enforcement and judicial officers. This should be part of broader efforts to improve training and professionalization throughout the criminal justice system.

Without a comprehensive anti-xenophobia strategy that includes efforts to bring to justice those responsible for inciting and carrying out violent xenophobic attacks, the horrific waves of xenophobic violence are likely to continue unabated. Effective policing to protect targeted communities and efforts to ensure justice and accountability for xenophobic violence are essential for deterring future violence and showing that the consequences for such actions are real.

© 2020 Human Rights Watch


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