We must come together to end xenophobic violence

Date: August 2, 2010
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Following the incredible feeling of African unity experienced during the World Cup, most of us were alarmed by rumours of the targeting of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers in some pockets of our communities post the final. It stood in stark contrast to the Pan-African spirit we demonstrated when we collectively switched our loyalty to Ghana after Bafana-Bafana was eliminated from the tournament.

We had been warned of a further outbreak of xenophobic violence in the months leading up to the greatest show on earth. Threats and gossip had spread through various townships and informal settlements, warning that once the final whistle blew and the world looked away, our vuvuzelas and banners would be replaced with torches and pangas to chase our African brothers and sisters back home.

These rumours were confirmed all too true last week as foreign-owned shops were looted and burned in the Western Cape and several foreigners were attacked in the Kya Sands Township in Johannesburg, which is now teeming with police officers trying to quell further violence.

However, the South African Human Rights Commission also last week accused the government of responding too slowly to the real threat of xenophobia. Lawrence Mushwana, the Chairman of the Commission, told Parliamentary reporters that the government had ignored recommendations aimed at ending xenophobic violence. He also maintained that much of the violence is being labelled xenophobic when the true causes are unknown. “Until we know what is causing [this] we will not be able to solve it,” he said.

Although we refer to our world as a “global village,” it is a world that is sadly lacking in closeness toward our neighbours. Around the country, there are problems stemming from either a lack of respect for, or lack of acceptance of, the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings. Policy makers sometimes refer to the movement of people as the third wave of globalisation, coming after the movement of goods (trade) and the movement of money (finance) that began in the previous century.

But trade and finance follow global norms and are governed by global institutions such as the World Trade Organisation, the Word Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Yet, there is no parallel group to deal with the migration of people. The most personal and dangerous form of movement is therefore the most unregulated. States make (and often ignore) their own rules, deciding who can come in, how long they can stay, and what rights they can enjoy when here.

These waves are experienced very differently by communities. While the movement of goods and finance and the effect on their quality of life is largely invisible to ordinary people, the movement of people is very clear. This may be the reason why it is these people who are targeted with anger. A shirt made in China can cost a South African worker her job without her knowing it. However, a worker from China might move next door in a township, get a job and send his children to a public school – and draw criticism for using public resources.

At least one other reason that amplifies the impact of modern migration is the expectation that the government will control it. Its failure – glaring if perhaps inevitable – weakens the broader faith in its competence. South Africa is no exception as the legislation and policies governing migration are far from adequate and don’t provide a functional and fair framework for dealing with foreign nationals. Our policies need to be aligned with international protocols. They should take cognisance of our particular location in Africa, trends towards regional integration and the inevitability of immigration to South Africa.

Indeed, the launch of the SADC free trade area in 2008 was welcomed as the start of an incremental process towards a monetary union and a more integrated economy. It was regarded as a pointer towards a future for the sub-continent that recognises our inter-dependence as economies and our inter-relationship as people.

While migration has been part of South Africa for a very long time, there are new features that set this era apart and amplify the effects of migration in the context of human rights in our country. One distinguishing feature is the money involved, which not only sustains the families left behind but in a limited sense, props up national economies. Migrants in South Africa send home large sums of money each year and in some of the SADC countries, remittances account for more than a quarter of the gross domestic product.

Another aspect of migration is how it affects the African family. According to the International Migration Organisation report on South Africa, nearly half of the migrants coming to the country are now women, and many have left children behind. Their emergence as breadwinners is altering family dynamics across the developing world. Migration empowers some, but puts others at risk: for example, the illegal trafficking of women for sex is a major concern in the region.

South Africa needs a strong moral leadership to counter fear, rumours and intimidation against foreign nationals. To counter the voices that call today’s migration a challenge to the United Nations Declaration, which established the territorial sovereignty of the nation-state. Judging by the length of the fence along our border and the unacceptably high levels of intolerance in our communities on the one hand, and the unity in our country demonstrated during the World Cup on the other, nation-states do not appear to be going away. Their people, increasingly, do.

The ‘Unite as One’ campaign which is spearheaded by civil society leaders and aimed at collecting a million signed pledges against xenophobia, intolerance, intimidation and violence could not have come at a more appropriate time. Launched to coincide with Mandela Day, the campaign will run until African Human Rights Day on 17 October. It calls on everyone to intensify their efforts to build a country in which people, in spite of their language or country of origin, respect each other and live together peacefully.

Nkosikhulule Nyembezi is a policy analyst and the Black Sash Advocacy Programme Manager. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service, produced as part of the Red Light 2010 Campaign to say no to human trafficking. Visit www.uniteasone.org.za to learn more about the Unite as One campaign.

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