Xenophobia in South Africa

May 2008 riots

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Spread of violence

On 12 May 2008 a series of riots started in the township of Alexandra (in the north-eastern part of Johannesburg) when locals attacked migrants from Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, killing two people and injuring 40 others. Some attackers were reported to have been singing Jacob Zuma‘s campaign song ‘Bring Me My Machine Gun’.

In the following weeks the violence spread, first to other settlements in the Gauteng Province, then to the coastal cities of Durbanand Cape Town.

Attacks were also reported in parts of the Southern Cape, Mpumalanga, the North West and Free State.

Popular opposition to xenophobia

In Khutsong in Gauteng and the various shack settlements governed by Abahlali baseMjondolo in KwaZulu-Natal social movements were able to ensure that there were no violent attacks.

Causes

A report by the Human Sciences Research Council identified four broad causes for the violence:

  • relative deprivation, specifically intense competition for jobs, commodities and housing;
  • group processes, including psychological categorisation processes that are nationalistic rather than superordinate
  • South African exceptionalism, or a feeling of superiority in relation to other Africans; and
  • exclusive citizenship, or a form of nationalism that excludes others.

A subsequent report, Towards Tolerance, Law, and Dignity: Addressing Violence against Foreign Nationals in South Africa, commissioned by the International Organisation for Migration found that poor service delivery or an influx of foreigners may have played a contributing role, but blamed township politics for the attacks. It also found that community leadership was potentially lucrative for unemployed people, and that such leaders organised the attacks. Local leadership could be illegitimate and often violent when emerging from either a political vacuum or fierce competition, the report said, and such leaders enhanced their authority by reinforcing resentment towards foreigners.

Aftermath

1 400 suspects were arrested in connection with the violence. Nine months after the attacks 128 individuals had been convicted and 30 found not guilty in 105 concluded court cases. 208 cases had been withdrawn and 156 were still being heard.

One year after the attacks prosecutors said that 137 people had been convicted, 182 cases had been withdrawn because witnesses or complainants had left the country, 51 cases were underway or ready for trail and 82 had been referred for further investigation.

In May 2009, one year after the attacks the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (Cormsa) said that foreigners remained under threat of violence and that little had been done to address the causes of the attacks. The organisation complained of a lack of accountability for those responsible for public violence, insufficient investigations into the instigators and the lack of a public government inquiry.

Gepos Bon Carolyne Ahiambo Ngara vlugtelinge in Suid-Afrika

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