A long time coming

2008-05-22 00:00

Xenophobic violence in Gauteng has claimed the lives of at least 23 people and displaced thousands more.

Officials are struggling to understand what has prompted the violence, with Gauteng Safety and Security MEC Firoz Cachalia saying the attacks were not just “spontaneous acts of xenophobic hatred”.

“We must call a spade a spade ... these are criminal acts,” Cachalia said.

Opposition parties have called on President Thabo Mbeki to deploy the army and set up refugee camps to help curb the violence.

To shed more light on what’s behind the xenophobic violence in Gauteng, News24 spoke to Professor Hussein Solomon, director of the Centre for International Political Studies. He also serves as a member of the International Steering Committee of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research as well as the Executive Committee of Global Action to Prevent War.

News24: What’s behind the xenophobic violence we are seeing?

Hussein Solomon: Frankly, frustration. Economic woes are increasing with increased fuel and food prices, high unemployment levels and poor service delivery, as well as high crime rates. In this situation where some foreigners are involved in crime, all become useful scapegoats.

News24: It seems like it has sprung up suddenly, but how prevalent has xenophobia been in South Africa in recent months?

Solomon: Xenophobia has not just suddenly sprung up. Various studies by Idasa, the Human Sciences Research Council, University of the Western Cape and Institute for Security Studies have been warning of the rising tide of xenophobia since the early nineties at least.

The government, however, has not responded to this. Moreover, there have been incidents reported in the local press for years on xenophobic attacks from Khayalitsha in the Western Cape to Durban in KwaZulu-Natal to Gauteng.

News24: So foreigners are being used as scapegoats for the worsening economic conditions we’re experiencing?

Solomon: Yes, some foreigners are involved in crime but not the majority — all however have become scapegoats. But I think it is also important to acknowledge that it is now spreading not just to foreigners but to other South African ethnic groups, for example Shangaans are being targeted by Zulus.

News24: Is there a Third Force at work?

Solomon: When the government messes up it is much easier to blame a Third Force. No, I do not believe that there is some malicious outside entity deviously ratcheting up feelings of hatred in cities and towns across the country.

News24: How could the government have prevented the problem from getting to this level?

Solomon: First, it is not just the government. The media have a role to play in moving away from negative stereotyping of immigrants. Religious leaders can play a role in reconciliation.

But government has a role to play in not just educating citizens on the various international legal obligations they have but by enacting domestic legislation strengthening the legal system in terms of hate crimes against foreigners. The government needs to come up with a more coherent migration policy and work more closely with structures such as the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration. It also needs to stop the corruption inside the Department of Home Affairs.

News24: And how can the government effectively address it now and prevent further escalation?

Solomon: Right now the issue of curfews in certain areas needs to be implemented as a matter of urgency to prevent further escalation.

News24: Apart from law enforcement, what other short-term measure should be implemented to prevent escalation of the violence?

Solomon: Community forums need to be established which include local government officials, the police and members of civil society as a matter of urgency to tackle this matter. These need to function even after violence subsides.

News24: Should the army be brought in to curb the violence? Is there a symbolism to bringing in the army that the government would rather avoid?

Solomon: Personally, I believe that the army should be brought in as violence is spreading at an alarming rate. The military can be used to place a cordon around an area while the police actually go into the area doing house-to-house searches for weapons and the like.

News24: How much of an impact have Jacob Zuma’s anti-immigrant sentiments had in stirring up xenophobia?

Solomon: I think it is important not to personalise this but I do believe that if senior politicians give the wrong signals, then xenophobic violence will simply intensify.

News24: Gauteng Safety and Security MEC Firoz Cachalia has said they could not have predicted this violence. Is this to be believed?

Solomon: No. As I mentioned above, the government just was not listening — same with the Eskom debacle.

News24: Do other African countries also experience this?

Solomon: Yes, in Ivory Coast, for instance, there was a large number of foreigners and it was not a problem for decades until a major economic downturn, then they were attacked.

News24: Is this likely to spread across South Africa?

Solomon: This is already occurring. It is spreading.

News24: Will this violence negatively affect South Africa and its image abroad?

Solomon: Absolutely — not just its image but also South Africa as a safe destination for investment.

News24: How bad is South Africa’s illegal immigrant problem? We keep hearing differing figures, but how bad is it really?

Solomon: Because you are talking about something illegal, you are talking about something undocumented and therefore difficult to quantify. The best figures I have heard are between 2,5 million and 4,1 million illegal immigrants in South Africa. — News24.

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