• Xenophobia in South Africa

    In May this year, South Africa witnessed widespread xenophobic attacks. Violence against foreign nationals is not new to the country; the problem has just worsened. Despite this and much speculation of the causes and triggers of the violence, no effective measures have been taken to address this conflict.

    A number of reports released after the attacks, highlight various issues contributing to xenophobia, some of which include poor service delivery and competition for resources.

    However, a recent report by the Forced Migration Studies Programme reveals that the type of leadership within communities might have an impact on whether or not xenophobic attacks occur in certain communities. This talks to issues of governance and begs the question, how effective are governance structures in communities today? How responsive and accountable are these structures to the needs of communities and how legitimate are they? If xenophobia is to be addressed, there is need to pay attention to these issues.

    The reintegration of foreign nationals displaced by the violence is still a challenge. Without a workable reintegration plan/strategy from government, civil society has had to step in and assist those struggling to find their feet after the attacks. While various civil society organisations continue to assist with reintegration, there may still be people who will not benefit from this as civil society does not have the resources to sustain this process. It is thus critical that local government use the existing disaster management structures and processes to provide replacement housing for non-nationals displaced because of xenophobic attacks.

    Ignoring the fears of foreigners returning to their communities, government closed the temporary safety sites, claiming that conditions were right for people to go back. As a result foreigners are forced to live in cities, struggling to pay high rental costs for accommodation. This is an indication that foreigners’ needs and welfare are still not a priority.

    Xenophobia is not the only challenge faced by refugees in South Africa. Upon their arrival in the country, asylum seekers have to go through the asylum process. This requires them to present themselves at one of the six Refugee Reception Offices in the country to apply for asylum. Over the years, this has not been a positive experience for thousands of refugees and asylum seekers. They have had to endure long queues, deal with corrupt officials, face language barriers and many other problems. While some of these problems persist today, some positive changes have been noted. However, gaining access to these offices still remains the biggest challenge.

    Many refugees and asylum seekers are not able to access treatment at public clinics and hospitals. When trying to access these services refugees and asylum seekers are often discriminated against because of the type of documentation they carry. At times this is purely based on the fact that they are not South African citizens. This discrimination has created a parallel system whereby refugees and asylum seekers seek treatment at sites run by NGOs.

    Accommodation is another challenge faced by refugees and asylum seekers in the country. This group often seek housing through the private housing sector because of exclusion from the national housing policies. Refugees and asylum seekers are often forced to pay exorbitant rental costs in comparison to South African’s. In some instances, landlords refuse to rent out to refugees and asylum seekers as they often do not understand the legal documents carried by them.

    Many refugees today are not able to access social assistance. After years of lobbying and advocacy by a number of organisations in the sector for refugees access to social assistance, disabled refugees can now apply for disability grants. Refugees can also apply for the foster child grant in respect of children. However, there is still a gap. Refugee children whose parents do not have the means to make ends meet are excluded from obtaining the Child Support Grant. Isn’t a refugee child also a child? What makes a refugee child different from a South African child?

    The issues and the challenges refugees face cut across various human rights fields. However, there has not been much collaboration between organisations working on broad human rights issues and those working in the refugee rights sector. This has often resulted in refugee challenges being addressed in isolation to the broader human rights issues. This separation of refugee issues from the broader human rights issues has also contributed in some ways in refugees having difficulty in accessing the various services that they need.

    However, in the aftermath of the xenophobic attacks, we saw a mobilisation and collaboration by other organisations whose mandate is not specifically on refugees but were driven to act by the violation of human rights of the affected people. There is a great need therefore to further strengthen these relationships if challenges facing refugees in the country are to be effectively addressed. After all refugees are human beings and have rights.

    Xenophobic attacks have not stopped to this day. The Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA) continues to receive reports of xenophobic attacks or threats thereof in various parts of the country. The question then arises, what will it take to end this? This is not a responsibility of government alone, but requires collective engagement from all stakeholders. It is critical however, that government play a leading role in this process. History will judge us if we fail to address this issue effectively now rather than later.

    When all has been said and done, the issue is not about foreign nationals and their rights, but about the safety of all who live in this country. It might be foreign nationals today but who will it be tomorrow?
  • Violence and Xenophobia in South Africa

    Violence and Xenophobia in South Africa: Developing Consensus, Moving to Action is a report on the outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa in May 2008. The report is based on a roundtable hosted in June 2008 in Pretoria that was attended by around 50 key stakeholders from government, civil society and from affected communities. It isthe result of a partnership between the Democracy and Governance (D&G) research programme of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and the British High Commission of South Africa. One of the recommendations the report makes that while housing is an important trigger of frustration and violence, there is a need for the progressive realisation of socio-economic rights including getting rid of the bucket system and expanding sanitation and access to clean water.

    For more information, click here (PDF).

  • NGO Conducts Research on Xenophobia in Alexandra

    The Forced Migration Studies Programme (FMSP) at the University of the Witwatersrand is determined to unpack the likely reasons for the recent xenophobic attacks in Alexandra, north of Johannesburg.

    FMSP believes that the reasons why the hostility exploded in some places and not in others with similar conditions, lie in how the communities are organised.

    FMSP’s Jean Pierre Misago says: “We’re not interested in actually finding individuals who did that but in whether there was kind of a community mobilisation that was behind it.”

    To read the article titled, “Researchers seek answers to SA’s xenophobic orgy,” click here.

    <br /> Business Day
    Article link: 
  • UNCHR to Launch an Inquiry Against South African Staff

    The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) is launching an inquiry into complaints made against its staff in South Africa.

    The move follows allegations by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), the AIDS Law Project (ALP) and the displaced people’s representatives, that the UNHCR observed horrific conditions in the refugee camps over several months, but did not take appropriate intervention.

    UNHCR’s Antonio Guterres says the UNHRC will fly a three-member panel to the country to conduct the inquiry.

    To read the article titled, “UN body to probe staff in SA,” click here.
    <br /> Sowetan
    Article link: 
  • Failure to Protect

    20 June 2008 was World Refugee Day. The theme for this year was ‘Refugee Protection’. For Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), it was a little ironic. In fact, MSF marked the day by placing public messages in major national and regional newspapers, calling for the South African government and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide the necessary assistance and legal protection to Zimbabweans guaranteed under international law.

    Even before the recent publicised violence erupted, calls for protection went unheard. MSF has been providing basic health care to migrants in central Johannesburg and Musina since December 2007. In the months since then, the Central Methodist Church in central Johannesburg, a shelter for mostly Zimbabweans, was raided by the South African Police Service in January and more recently townships in Gauteng and the Western Cape turned into conflict zones with foreign nationals forced to flee to their nearest police station for safety.

    In an opinion piece in The Star newspaper, Jonathan Whittall, humanitarian affairs officer with MSF, wrote that “the current events should not overshadow the need to speak out about the situation in Zimbabwe, and most importantly the need for adequate legal protection for all Zimbabweans: this should include a halt to all deportations.”

    For MSF the concern is the lack of access to services, which includes health care. Many do not seek the health care they are entitled to because they fear deportation. When one has legal status and/or feels protected by the authorities, it is far easier to access services. In fact, in Musina, many Zimbabweans are extremely hesitant to even come to MSF mobile clinics, for fear of being apprehended en route to the mobile clinic, and being deported.

    The situation at the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg is not much better as people without legal status rely on MSF for assisted referral to state facilities. Without MSF referral, the outcome is rarely positive. “One elderly woman our teams encountered had a stroke at the church where she is sheltering. She was denied treatment four times before finally being given basic care,” says Whittall.

    The acts of violence against foreign nationals highlighted the need for greater access to health care. On 19 May MSF began an emergency intervention in most of the initial places of safety for displaced foreign nationals, and continues providing primary and mental health care at the seven camps, or temporary shelters in Gauteng. In this period MSF has treated 6 000 patients half of whom for respiratory infections. This should not come as a surprise, though.

    People sleeping in tents are exposed to winter temperatures of below 10 degrees, every night. During the day the sun is weak and barely dries the cold and damp clothes and blankets strewn over tents. There are latrines, water points and showers for the displaced persons, but having to take a walk to the nearest one after sunset is a risk for health and personal safety reasons.

    The state of uncertainty is detrimental to the mental health of the foreign nationals traumatised by the brutal acts of violence as well as the violent displacement from their homes, mostly in South African townships. Living in police stations, churches and community halls came with its own risks, both in terms of physical safety and mental stability. The organised removal to the temporary shelters only worsened matters. This sequence of events was wholly out of the control of those affected. And for many, this came on top of the traumatic events that forced them to leave their country in the first place.

    MSF is presently increasing its mental health care in the seven camps in Gauteng, and the existing health facility in Johannesburg. More than 1 400 counselling sessions for individuals and groups have taken place since the outbreak of the violence.

    Adrienne Carter is coordinating the counselling for foreign nationals with 12 other MSF counsellors. She expresses concern for the mounting frustration among the communities in the camps: “We are only now beginning to see the actual effects of recent events. Fear as an emotion is very distressing. People are mostly concerned about their future. They have no idea what’s going to happen. They have options, but no choices. Do you go home, where things are very bad and made you leave in the first place, or do you stay, even though you are very terrified of going back to a community that expelled you?”

    Adrienne mentions the situation of the displaced Somalis and Ethiopians. “They cannot go home, but to stay means starting all over again. They have nothing. They have lost everything.” Thus, even with refugee status or asylum documentation, displaced foreign nationals are facing an uncertain future, and protection is desperately needed. Answers and options are needed now.

    Suné Kitshoff
  • Leaving for the Region

    Leaving for the Region
  • Refugees Outside Marabastad Home Affairs, Pretoria

    Taken for a Lawyers for Human Rights Court Case.
  • Constitutional Values, Diversity and Democracy

    The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) launched its first dialogue series on constitutional values on 22 August in Johannesburg. Held under the theme “Unity in Diversity: Promoting and Advancing Constitutional Values in South Africa”, representatives from government, human rights organisations and civil society came together to discuss constitutional values in a democratic society.

    The SAHRC hopes these discussions will enable South Africans to critically assess the inherent challenges of applying constitutional values as interpreted by different interest groups in a highly contested political, cultural, religious and economic terrain.

    SAHRC chairperson Jody Kollapen, said the meeting took place at a time when millions of South Africans “live outside the Constitution”. Kollapen argues that South Africans should begin to deal with the fundamental values of the Constitution as the country approaches general elections next year.

    Former education minister and retired parliamentarian Kader Asmal called for debate around how often the Constitution should be amended. These debates should also focus on the value of the Chapter Nine Institutions to ensure their independence. “A vigorous, healthy democracy entails, no doubt, vigorous, robust debate,” he said.

    In the same vein, president of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), Tinyiko Maluleke, warned that discussing constitutional values and diversity is a meaningless exercise as long as the country fails to identify “who is human.”

    Maluleke said South Africans are still not equal even after 1994 there is a sense that some lives are more important than the others. He argued that this is evident in the different ways in which the government delivers services to townships compared to so-called historically white suburbs.

    He recalled living in Tembisa township in the East Rand, where the municipality had a tendency of taking few days before fixing a sewage pipe unlike in Centurion where it takes only few hours.

    National Alliance For Non-Government Organisations’ Eric Ntshiqela, blamed the government for the recent xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals in the country. Ntshiqela posits that government is failing to engage ordinary citizens on issues that affect them. He argued that all the important meetings take place in places that are “not accessible” to communities. Meetings take place in “suburbs and in the books,” he stressed.

    Speaking to the issue of mutual vulnerability within the current socio-political context in South Africa, National Research Foundation chairperson, Catherine Odora Hoppers, called for South Africans to learn from other cultures. She pointed out that if humanity diversity refers to the presence in one population of a wide variety of cultures, opinions, ethnic groups, socio-economic backgrounds, then diversity should be manifested in the existence of many people contributing their unique experiences to humanity’s culture.

    While echoing Odora Hoppers’ sentiments, Nontombenhle Nkosi, CEO of the Pan South African Language Board (PANSALB) also criticised the Constitution for allowing the legalisation of abortion for girls as young as 14. She argued that this fails to recognise African cultures.

    Independent conflict analyst/facilitator, Jan Van Eck, cautioned against viewing dialogue processes as competition, instead of understanding it as an opportunity to bring communities, government leaders and civil society organisations together to debate issues of national interest.

    Van Eck, whose spoke about dialogue as a tool to advance unity in a conflict-ridden situation, experiences from the Great Lakes region, explained that informal dialogue empowers locals to deal with issues that affect them.

    He cited how informal discussions benefited war-torn countries such as Burundi and Rwanda, where people were killed on the grounds of their origins and ethnicity.

    However, Maluleke believes that South Africans need to discover themselves at a personal level before debating on diversity and intolerance. Given the recent Joint Working Group (JWG) protest against John Qwelane’s column in the Sunday Sun newspaper, which is marked by hate speech against lesbian and gay people, his comments are particularly relevant.

    JWG coordinator, Emily Craven, points out in a press statement, “The article exceeds the bounds of free speech in terms of the Constitution as it advocates hatred on the grounds of a person’s preference for having relationships with members of the same sex.”

    Asmal cautioned against the use of “violent and extremist” language, which he argued violates the core elements of the Constitution. Expressions such as; “prepare for war”, and “ready to fight to take over the streets”, are not only offensive, but also constitute a danger to the country’s democratic order, he said. Asmal argued that language like this is intimidatory and precludes any debate about ends and means.

    His comments came in the wake of the recent meetings between the SAHRC and secretary-general of the Congress of the South African Trade Unions, Zwelenzima Vavi, and another with the newly-elected president of the African National Congress Youth League, Julius Malema, over “shoot-to-kill for Zuma” comments.

    The dialogue series forms part of the SAHRC’s objective to facilitate a national discussion on constitutional values. In addition to specific dialogues, the series will also include provincial dialogues where community-based or grassroots organisations and the general public can discuss and debate issues of concern to them; web-based electronic discussion forums to maximise the participation of as many stakeholders as possible; engagements with the 2010 Soccer World Cup to promote and protect human rights during and after the 2010 World Cup and following-up on South Africa’s international obligations such as the development of the National Action Plan to Combat Racism which was agreed to at World Conference on Racism, establishing partnerships with the media.

    - Butjwana Seokoma is the information coordinator at SANGONeT

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    Butjwana Seokoma
  • NGO Meeting on Xenophobia a Success – Mazibuko

    SANGONeT, 15 June 2008. 

    The Southern Africa Trust (SAT) in collaboration with the Foundation for Community Development, held a one-day meeting on “A Response to the Regional Human Security Impact on Attacks on Immigrants in South Africa” on 10 June 2008 in Maputo, Mozambique.

    Speaking to SANGONeT, Brain Mazibuko, who represented the South African National NGO Coalition (SANGOCO) at the meeting, reported that former Mozambican first lady Graca Machel called on civil society in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to unite and challenged SADC to speak out against xenophobia and the current political situation in Zimbabwe. Machel apparently apologised to Mozambicans staying in South Africa about the recent xenophobic attacks and said not all the South Africans are xenophobic.

    A victim of the recent xenophobic attacy identified as Joyce, talked about how she lost all her belongings as a result of the attacks. She has been assisted by Machel to return to Mozambique, where she is now living with her children.

    Head of Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, Paul Veryn complained about the behaviour of the South African police whom he accuses of taking advantage of the refugees housed in his church.

    Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), Chairperson, Jody Kollapen, also apologised to non-nationals who were attacked in South Africa. Kollapen promised to institute programmes to educate South Africans about refugees. 

    A regional task committee was selected comprising among others; representatives from the civil society including SANGOCO and Southern Africa Trust, as well Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). 

    For more information contact Brian Mazibuko on 011 403 7746 / Cell: 083 617 3100.

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