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Keeping race hate at bay in South Africa

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Munyaradzi Makoni |  27 March 2017


Life is back to normal a month after residents of Mamelodi, a township in northeast Pretoria, South Africa, marched from the old Marabastad bus terminal to the Home Affairs offices in protest over criminality among immigrants.

Mamelodi protestersNow, there are calls for closer re-examination of the action, which many see as threatening peace in one of Africa's biggest economies.

The immigrants are accused of taking away jobs from local people. Spokesperson for the protesters Makgoka Lekganyane said the march was to show they were tired of being slaves in their own country.

South Africa has 2.3 million immigrants — 1.6 million of these are Congolese, Ethiopians, Mozambicans, Nigerians, Somalians and Zimbabweans. Many of these migrants run small shops or work in service industries. Disputed estimates say unregistered migrants number up to five million. The line between violence against immigrants who are criminals and xenophobia is hard to discern.

A week earlier in Pretoria West, two houses were torched, its occupants, immigrants of Nigerian origin, accused of pimping. The incident sparked the looting of 20 foreign-owned shops in the suburbs of Atteridgeville‚ Lotus Gardens and Mamelodi East.

On 11 February, at least ten houses, alleged drug dens and brothels, had been set alight in Rosettenville, Johannesburg. Again locals blamed Nigerians as the source of criminal activity.

In the space of two weeks, pamphlets and messages appeared in social media. Community members were urged to join a peaceful march against immigrants. In the past such language and actions have rarely ended peacefully. They lead to looting, destruction, and death. Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba expressed concern at the outbreak of violence, stating that it was not merely linked to xenophobia.

Xenophobic violence against non-nationals, particularly if they are black African, is almost a ritual in South Africa. No amount of preaching keeps it at bay. It rears its ugly head, gets stamped out and lies dormant in the hearts and minds of those who perform it.


"Due to South Africa's slow economic growth and increased inequalities, the fierce competition for limited resources, services and opportunities between foreigners and the unemployed poor needs to be comprehensively addressed."


The worst occurred in 2008, when more than 60 people died nationwide at the hands of South Africans. On 30 March, the 2015 xenophobic violence began in Isipingo, an industrial and residential area in the eThekwini metro south of Durban's city. No clear reasons for the skirmishes were available, but a rumour spread that a local company was employing illegal immigrants for lower pay.

Emmanuel Sithole, a cigarette and sweet hawker and Mozambique national living and working in Alexandra Township in Johannesburg, was attacked and stabbed in the heart by four young male residents on 18 April 2015. He later died after journalists rushed him to the hospital.

The Bishops in South Africa have always preached about the need for proper integration of immigrant communities in various activities in each parish. Where possible, chaplains have been provided to the immigrant communities. Bishop Abel Gabuza, chairperson of the Justice and Peace Commission under the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops Conference, says church property has always provided sanctuary to anyone in need. But, for many reasons, xenophobic attacks keep resurfacing. 'The attacks do not take place in our leafy suburbs, but in spaces where the socio-economic pressures are higher,' says Gabuza.

Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) says a march against foreign migrants should not have been allowed. JRS country director, Johan Viljoen, likens it to marches by white supremacists during the apartheid era. 'It is unthinkable that the local authorities would allow a march by the AWB Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement),' says Viljoen 'Why allow this?' From the onset, the march was a barbaric display of hatred and prejudice. 'If drugs and crime were really the issues, it should have been billed as an anti-drugs, anti-crime march — not an anti-foreigner march,' Viljoen says.

Peace has now returned, and the Catholic bishops of South Africa continue to call for calm and restraint. 'We cannot stress it enough that, even in cases of extreme dissatisfaction with the law enforcement and alleged criminal elements perpetrated by some of the foreign nationals, community members should not take the law into their hands,' Gebuza warns.

Due to South Africa's slow economic growth and increased inequalities, the fierce competition for limited resources, public services and economic opportunities between foreigners and the unemployed poor needs to be comprehensively addressed. If it is not, says Gabuza, 'especially in townships and informal settlements, it will continue to generate an environment that increases the risk of xenophobic attacks'.


Munyaradzi MakoniMunyaradzi Makoni is a Zimbabwean born journalist. He writes from Cape Town. His work has appeared in The Tablet, SciDev.Net, Thompson Reuters Foundation, University World News, among others.


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Submitted comments

Why is concern about an unregistered migrant moving into your community and taking your job xenophobia? Why isn’t it an expression of concern for your natural right to feed yourself?

Roy Chen Yee 30 March 2017

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