Date: Aug 30, 2019 By: Susan Tolmay, Women and Marginalized Groups Rights Officer

Xenophobia in South Africa: What happened to Ubuntu?

I have been watching the violence and looting of foreign owned-businesses over the past few weeks across South Africa, first in Johannesburg and now escalating in Pretoria, with despair. The authorities seem to be standing by and watching the attacks against migrants and foreign nationals, and their businesses, who dare to try and make a living or work for a better life in our backyard.

I’ve watched videos of crowds of people descending on businesses and spaza shops owned by migrants and foreign nationals, just helping themselves to the merchandise on the shelves and calmly walking away with the stolen goods. These crowds are acting with the knowledge that there will be no consequences for their actions, because the police don’t take any action.

We often hear that many South Africans are angry and that the country is among the most unequal societies in the world with high levels of unemployment and poverty. But migrants and foreign nationals are being scapegoated by government for lack of service delivery and inability to create jobs. The current unemployment rate sits at 29% in the first quarter of 2019, according to StatsSA. This affects youth largely and the alleged looting was mostly carried out by youths.

We have seen over the years that xenophobic incidents and looting are often preceded by utterances by political leaders who say South Africa is flooded with migrants and blame foreign nationals for crimes and other illegal activities. The latest SA Population Statistics show the migrant population to be just over 1.64-million or 2.82% of South Africa’s population of over 58-million. This is not a high percentage and should not be construed as an influx.

Community members blame government for allowing migrants and foreign nationals in the country because they believe them to be taking their jobs and houses and committing crime, whereas it is government’s failure to create a vibrant economy, create jobs, provide adequate housing and protect all people against grave human rights violations, which continue because of the impunity of suspected perpetrators.

The situation is exacerbated by police officials who seem overtly xenophobic. Two South African sisters were recently arrested by police officials in Johannesburg CBD raids against shops owned by migrants and foreign nationals, just because they look different. During the arrest one of the police officers commented “Yes, they do smell Ethiopian and they look Ethiopian too”. The sisters didn’t have their IDs on them at the time of the raid, and the police officials didn’t believe that they were South Africans, so they were arrested with other “undocumented” foreign nationals and kept in an overcrowded cell in Johannesburg Central Prison for five days before being released. There were other accounts in the media of documented foreign nationals being arrested and imprisoned.

The incident was traumatic for the sisters, but this is what migrants and foreign nationals face on a daily basis. Where is our humanity? Are we not all human, having basic human rights and deserving of a life free from violence and discrimination? To live our lives with hope and dignity?

How is it that in 2019, 25 years after the first free elections, with our history of struggle for human rights and an end to discrimination in all its forms, we are treating people so inhumanely, in ways our struggle icons fought against? What does this say about us as a nation?

Honest conversations about xenophobia need to be had, and we all need to do some introspection. We cannot stand by while our African sisters and brothers are driven out of communities, having their lives and livelihoods destroyed.

We should be calling out our politicians for misinforming the public about migrants and foreign nationals and for their xenophobic utterances. We should call on the police and oversight bodies to apply the law without prejudice or favour, ensuring that those committing violent and other criminal acts are brought to justice and that the victims receive effective remedies.

And we should stop hatred and violence against migrants and foreign nationals in communities and foster safe and inclusive environments. Everyone should stand against xenophobia, in all its forms to create an inclusive society. Let us do the right thing and create a dignified, caring and compassionate South Africa for all who live in it. After all, that’s what the fight against apartheid was all about.

This article was first published on Daily Maverick.