Double Jeopardy: Female and Foreign in South Africa

Wednesday, 3 June, 2009 - 12:11

A year has passed since the xenophobic attacks in Alexandra left 62 people dead, at least 670 wounded, dozens of women raped, and at least 100 000 displaced. Horrific images and reports in the media reflected a country in crisis. A new report explores the gendered nature of xenophobia in South Africa and the impact of such xenophobia on migrant women

A year has passed since the xenophobic attacks in Alexandra left 62 people dead, at least 670 wounded, dozens of women raped, and at least 100 000 displaced. Horrific images and reports in the media reflected a country in crisis.

“The first attack, 11 May 2008, that resulted in 2 deaths and 40 injuries. Migrants from Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe were targeted.

Some shacks and a vehicle were set alight in the Ramaphosa informal settlement on Saturday morning, Gauteng police said.

A Mozambican man has been burned alive by a mob during disturbances near the South African capital Pretoria.” – (Source:

Just over a year later, local newspaper Sowetan, reports that “xenophobic attacks are rising amongst foreign nationals in the Western Cape”. Are we to expect a repeat of the last years’ xenophobic violence? What has changed since last year? Do South African citizens still feel that African migrants living in their midst are taking their jobs, housing and women and/or being involved in crime?

For women a double jeopardy exists - their gender and nationality makes them more susceptible to violence. Compounding this is that women who are foreign nationals have less recourse and protection than South African women, thus making them more susceptible to aggressive sexual behaviour.

On Friday, 29 May 2009, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) launched the findings of a study in a report entitled ‘The Gendered Nature of Xenophobia in South Africa’ at Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg.

The main objective of the study was to explore the gendered nature of xenophobia in South Africa and the impact of such xenophobia on migrant women. The study was conceptualised, designed and implemented before the May 2008 xenophobic attacks in recognition of the fact that xenophobia was a particular form of gender-based violence.

Data was collected through interviews conducted with a sample of 155 respondents from Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, Uganda and Nigeria. Eighteen of the women had left their country of birth because of ethnic violence or war. Twenty-six of the women have children, ranging in numbers from one to six: at least four of the women were separated from some or all of their children. A major concern for the women who had brought children to South Africa is the impact of xenophobia on them. The women interviewed spoke of how their children were threatened or attacked at schools because they were foreigners

Commenting on the findings, CSVR Executive Director, Adele Kirsten observed that the roles women occupied in their home countries during the conflict they fled ie that of protecting their children and supporting communities – remained intact in the country of their refuge.

The study found that as traditional bearers of culture, the issue of identity and belonging is a distinctly gendered problem for women migrants. Maintaining a sense of identity is usually done through cultural dress, food, music and rituals. However, doing so also impedes integration into a new community as this distinguishes them from the rest of the population, thus making them vulnerable to xenophobic abuse.

Duncan Breen of the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA) argued that gendered xenophobia must be considered the same as racism, sexism, homophobia and other acts of intolerance towards others, as it is a daily experience for many migrant women. These women are not able to gain access to services such as health, transport or housing, and struggle to access the criminal justice system. “Women are thus targets for gender-based violence because they aren’t documented and cannot report incidences to the police,” Breen said.

Analysts of the May 2008 attacks, found the competition for resources between migrants and poor South Africans to be one on the leading reasons for the violence. According to the CSVR, this is true in relation to the general causes of xenophobia towards foreign women, with jealousy from South Africans over migrant women’s accommodation and/or employment linked to xenophobic attitudes and behaviours.

In light of the findings of the study, the CSVR has made a number of specific recommendations to reduce the xenophobia experienced by women migrants. These include:

  • Establish local community and neighbourhood based education and awareness campaigns;
  • Create space for cultural exchange in schools;
  • Locate anti-xenophobic posters in taxis, taxi ranks, bus depots, buses, train stations and trains;
  • Create business partnerships between South African and foreign women;
  • Include foreign/migrant representatives on community structures to enable them to have access to decision-making bodies;
  • Inform migrant women on how to access public services;
  • Conduct capacity building and training with public service providers to educate them on working with women from different cultures;
  • Create a transparent complaint process for the Department of Home Affairs and public hospitals
  • Create a set of legal standards and guidelines for all public services so as to legally enforce equal treatment of foreigners and locals.

Also responding to the May 2008 attacks, the International Migration Organisation made a number of recommendations in a research report titled, ‘Towards Tolerance, Law, and Dignity: Addressing Violence against Foreign Nationals in South Africa’ – please provide link to this / or to more information about it. These include:

  • Develop interventions to promote accountability and counter a culture of impunity;
  • Criminal prosecution on its own will not be enough. Resources and mechanisms should be put in place to encourage existing civil society organisations to support the rights and welfare of non-nationals;
  • Promote positive reforms to build inclusive local governance structures;
  • Open up more channels for legal migration;
  • Support government to address xenophobic and discriminatory practices in public institutions;
  • Promote a human rights culture among the people of South Africa;
  • Conduct ongoing, systematic inquiries into anti-immigrant and anti-outsider violence and the political economy of township life;
  • Recognising the difficulties of achieving the reforms outlined above, Government should work together with international organisations (eg, IOM, UNHCR, OCHA) and civil society to develop early conflict and disaster warning and management systems;
  • Sensitise and capacitate media to undertake responsible reporting on migrants and migration issues.

While the recommendations in both studies are important in addressing the situation, migrant women living in South Africa still find themselves victims of physical violence, verbal and psychological abuse, structural and institutional violence, and cultural and ethnic discrimination.

As Duncan Breen concluded his presentation, “If we don’t deal with daily incidences of xenophobia, then it’s likely that there’ll be no changes on a large scale.”

Nicolle Beeby is the programme assistant to SANGONeT’s Civil Society Information Programme.

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