Why are foreigners under attack in SA?

2015-04-15 17:10

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There are three main reasons for the spate of violence against foreigners in South Africa – proximity (they are easy targets), economic opportunities and the national discourse promoted by South Africa’s leaders, says a local professor.

The recent xenophobic attacks in the greater Durban area were linked to King Goodwill Zwelithini’s speech in Pongola a few weeks ago. The king has since blamed the media for distorting his message.

But according to Professor Loren Landau from the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand, xenophobic comments from leaders such as the Zulu king are only part of the problem.

The attacks, which have been mostly on foreigners coming out of other parts of Africa and sub-continental Asia, have increased dramatically in the past few weeks. They started in KwaZulu-Natal and have since spread to other parts of South Africa, including Johannesburg.

“In terms of the targets of the attacks I think there are a number of explanations. The most obvious is proximity: these are the groups of people who live and work in townships. As the violence is based on a mix of rage, frustration and opportunism, these are the obvious and ‘easy’ targets. That the police have done little to protect them does little to discourage such attacks,” said Landau.

In past attacks, foreigners claimed that police were not of any help to them when they asked for assistance. In a previous wave of violence against foreigners in Soweto, there were widespread reports of criminal and xenophobic ­behaviour by some police officers tasked with stopping the looting.

Second, these are people working in sectors such as small business and manual labour that offer the few available economic opportunities to poor South Africans. While their presence may ultimately create jobs, it is not perceived that way,” added Landau.

“And this suggests a third reason: the consistent demonisation of poor migrants from officials and leaders. The discourse about economic competition, illegal immigration and even the threats of disease and terrorism have largely pointed to migrants from Africa and Asia,” Landau said.

South African leaders have come under fire for not taking a firm enough position on the violence.

Last week President Jacob Zuma spoke out against the acts, saying that many South Africans had sought refuge in other countries during apartheid and had been treated with respect and dignity. He called for the same treatment to be extended to foreigners seeking refuge in the country at the moment.

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