Stop Xenophobia and Celebrate Africa Unity

rights migrants constitution xenophobia
Wednesday, 6 June, 2012 - 09:49

South Africa should act now to address various challenges faced by foreign nationals, especially four years after the xenophobic attacks that left many people dead

Foreign nationals continue to be under threat in South Africa four years after wide spread xenophobic attacks.

The month of May is considered Africa month. This is the month that on 25 May 1963; the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was formed. The formation of the OAU represented the solidarity and unity of African nations and people which aimed to coordinate and intensify cooperation among African states, with the goal of achieving a better life for all the people of Africa.

Over the years, the continent has seen its fair share of wars, famine, natural disasters, but also celebrated its victories as many countries gradually gained independence from colonialism, the abolishing of apartheid was a victory not only for South Africa (SA), but for all the African countries and the international community who had shielded those who went into exile and supported mass movements against apartheid. The dawn of democracy in 1994, was a culmination of years of struggle for freedom and a great celebration for many who had been fighting for equal rights for all. It facilitated a constitutional democracy where everyone’s rights are respected under the law and should also be respected in practice.

However, the constitutional right to dignity and to life of non-nationals have been consistently violated both during apartheid and within the democratic dispensation. The most visible disregard for the lives of non-nationals is consistently witnessed with their continued attacks in the country. While xenophobic attacks had been carried out in various parts of SA unaddressed for many years, despite civil society calls for action, the most disturbing and brutal attacks were witnessed exactly four years ago, it was quite ironic that the month that has been marked as a month to celebrate Africa and African-ness was marred by such attacks. 

8 May marked the fourth anniversary of the xenophobic attacks which left scores of foreigners and South Africans dead and thousands displaced. Violence against migrants continues unabated. Non-nationals across SA are still calling for justice and humane treatment after the 2008 xenophobic attacks. Some of the people who have come to SA for an array of reasons continue to face injustices. These range from violent attacks, being denied access to services and the continued stereotypes attributed to foreign nationals. Recent reports note that non-nationals are regularly attacked in various provinces with a number of deaths reported on a monthly basis. Foreign nationals who own and/or run spaza shops around the country are experiencing intense pressures as they deal with harassment and the destruction of their businesses. Migrants are also confronting ongoing discrimination and violence when seeking and doing work.

Indeed, since the attacks, government has yet to establish a coordinated plan to deal with xenophobia and social cohesion. Instead various government departments and municipalities have their own plans which do not seem to address the continuing xenophobia that non-nationals face. Without a clear plan of action; government, at all levels, runs the risk of perpetuating the conditions of deprivation and isolation that foment attacks against people perceived as foreigners.  This non-coordinated intervention strategy also risk burning communities out as various stakeholders target the same communities to implement intervention strategies.

A key issue that remains unaddressed since the eruption of violence is the lack of accountability for those who were the perpetrators. Many communities continue to wait for the convictions of those responsible for the xenophobic acts. Lack of a timely judicial process for perpetrators, diminishes the rights and protections of all people living in SA, foreigner or citizen. We need justice in order for real peace and stability to be maintained. Lack of proper systems to ensure accountability was evident in the recent case of attacks on foreigners in Limpopo, which resulted in the arrest of over one hundred suspects, many who were later released.

This year’s commemoration offers an opportunity for the South African government to finally follow through on the commitments made at the World Conference Against Racism held in 2001 in Durban and the Durban Review conference in 2010. SA signed and ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 1994 and 1998 respectively, but government has yet to finalise a National Action Plan to address racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance 10 years after the Durban conference. A National Action Plan could be a platform for government to address the growing xenophobia that is infecting the country and has the potential to serve as a model for all nations who are high receivers of migrants.

Government would do well in honouring the lives of those who died in the xenophobic attacks by introducing and passing robust hate crime legislation. SA at present has no legislation covering crimes that are motivated by prejudice or that specifically target people on the basis of factors such as race, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion. Injustice toward migrants threatens all of our freedoms.

The commemoration also presents a crucial chance for the government to act decisively to make migrant and refugee rights - human rights. As the focus of this year’s Africa month centres on the diaspora and the contribution they can make to the sustainable development of the continent, it is important that governments, states and all people promote an environment which will build confidence and promotes opportunities for investment whilst upholding the rights and freedoms for all. It is also an opportunity particularly for SA to effectively use and benefit from the skills that many migrants and refugees who are in SA possess and in so doing, ensure development not only of the country but the region and continent. This will also mean that we are contributing towards to realisation of economic development for the continent, thereby promoting the African Union’s vision of ‘an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa’

- Sicel’mpilo Shange-Buthane is executive director at Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA). For more about the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, refer to

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