Reflections on the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa

The reflections of fr Philippe Denis, OP, the Regent of Studies of the General Vicariate of Southern Africa, and Professor of History at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa.
Reflections on the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa

Sadly, xenophobia is again on the agenda in South Africa. In May 2008 a series of riots left more than sixty people dead, creating a lasting fear amongst foreigners. Xenophobic violence never stopped after that but it remained more or less under control. This month xenophobic attacks reach alarming levels for a second time. The exact number of casualties is not known because many are not reported in the media. In Pietermaritzburg, where we have a Dominican priory, Musa and Siyabonga, two young people to whom I have spoken, saw dead bodies of foreigners in West Street, near the train station and under a bridge in Mayor’s Walk. Some of the killers came singing and dancing from an informal settlement called Masukwane. It was frightening. Episodes of xenophobic violence were also reported in Imbali, the biggest black township of Pietermaritzburg, and in Northdale. Businesses and private houses occupied by foreigners have been looted and burned. Hundreds of expatriates have abandoned their houses and their belongings and returned to their countries of birth, some of them after many years of peaceful existence in South Africa.

There were some incidents against Pakistani and Bangladeshi in the Johannesburg area at the beginning of April, but xenophobia really started in Durban ten days ago. From there it spread to Pietermaritzburg and Johannesburg, especially around hostels occupied by Zulu people. Alexandra, a black township north of Johannesburg, is particularly affected. The responsibility of Goodwill Zwelithini, the Zulu king – a traditional leader who has no constitutional power but commands respect in the Zulu population, the biggest ethnic group in the country, and receives a comfortable salary from the government – in the upsurge of violence is undeniable. A few days before it started in Durban he asked, in a speech in Pongola, that “those who come from outside our country pack up their belongings and go back to where they come from”. He stubbornly refused to apologise, pretending, against all evidence, that his speech had been misinterpreted. Some of the killers explicitly referred to his speech when attacking foreigners.

It took a few days for the government to react. President Jacob Zuma interrupted a trip in Indonesia. Some of the killers have been arrested. It remains to be seen if they will be prosecuted. In 2008 very few were. We have been told that the army would be deployed in the KwaZulu-Natal province but we are still waiting. Civil society is mobilised. There are meetings, public statements and petitions everywhere. Stan Muyebe, a Dominican brother who heads the Justice and Peace Commission of the Southern African Bishops’ Conference, told me of the campaigns made by the churches, mostly at the ecumenical level, to denounce the violence against foreigners and organise support for them.

This new episode of xenophobic violence concerns the Southern African Dominican vicariate because more than half of its members are foreigners. They come from countries, Zimbabwe and Malawi for example, which lost citizens during the attacks of the past few days. Fortunately none of us was attacked. The good news is that the universities of the countries, where no less than 70,000 foreigners are enrolled, were not affected. This being said, foreign students suffer from another form of xenophobia. In recent years it has become increasingly difficult for non-South Africans to obtain work or study permits. The Home Affairs Department, the South African police and the South African embassies in the various countries multiply the obstacles for those who try to study or work in South Africa.

Why this violence? It is, one should say, a bad response to a real problem. The gap between the poor and the rich keeps increasing in South Africa. By and large the ANC government has not kept its promises. There are resources in the country but they do not reach the poor because of corruption and inefficiency at all levels of government. During the past five years violent protests against the lack of delivery have multiplied. The recent xenophobic attacks resemble these protests. They have the same roots.

A more general problem is the absence of a coherent policy to welcome foreigners. From that point of view South Africa is not very different from Europe, North America or Australia. Hundreds of thousands of people in search of a better life cross the borders, legally or illegally, every year. Some of them are criminals. The tendency, therefore, is to consider each foreigner as a potential criminal. Most of them, in fact, are very peaceful. They are known for being hard workers. They left their country of birth because of war or poverty.

What depresses me most is that, in the short them at least, the instigators of xenophobic violence have been successful. They wanted the foreigners to pack and go and this is exactly what is happening. It will take a long time to recover from this shameful situation.

fr Philippe Denis, OP
Emaphetelweni Dominican Community, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, 23 April 2015


(28 April 2015)