Communities not blindly xenophobic

2011-06-25 17:42

Lurking behind recent incidents of mob violence, vigilante attacks and xenophobia are individuals who prey on community fears and hardships to further their own ­political, leadership and economic interests. They do not always ­succeed.

“We have seen positive signs. In a number of places in the past year, where people have tried to mobilise a community to attack foreigners, for instance, residents have not bought into arguments that foreigners are just here to steal jobs or do crime,” says Tara Polzer Ngwato, senior researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society.

“Community resistance and improved policing have prevented more attacks.”

Ngwato says the “general story” behind the violence is that people in communities are mobilised by individuals – usually a self-appointed community ­leader, businessperson or political leader.

These so-called leaders mobilise and incite the community by claiming, without evidence, that certain people or groups are ­responsible for crime or for stealing local jobs.

“This is done for their own ­personal power and to maintain that power as well as economic ­interests,” Ngwato says.

New hate-crime legislation is ­being developed but Ngwato is not convinced it will effectively curb the problem.

“It may help with recording ­incidents and in not releasing people who incite violence once they have been arrested. But we already have a number of laws and equality courts to deal with the same situations. They are just not being used effectively,” she says.

If statistics were available, the relevant authorities could act more proactively by identifying problem areas and causes.

But since no centralised national point exists where these incidents are recorded, trends in ­specific communities are difficult to monitor.

“Currently, we are only reacting to incidents, dealing with the symptoms and not the cause,” ­Ngwato says.

Another difficulty, Ngwato says, is the “lack of clear, vocal political statements from national political leaders condemning this kind of violence”.

Although some local politicians have been vocal, national leaders of political parties have failed to adequately address the problem.

Ngwato says South Africa already has the toughest border controls on the continent and greater policing will not stop ­people migrating.

“There is an interest in South Africa and it will always be like this. If we close our borders we will lose control because we will not be able to document people effectively,”?she says.

According to statistics released by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees on World Refugee Day on Monday, South Africa receives about 181?000 asylum applications every year.

Antony Altbeker, senior researcher at the Centre for Development and Enterprise, says ­foreigners should be welcomed.

“Stopping them at the borders will not help. We have to maximise the benefits they bring such as skills we can use. But because we are suspicious of them we make it harder for them to do what they do well. Foreigners almost always contribute more to the economy than they take,” Altbeker says.

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