XENOPHOBIA Causes, responses, policies

In a country where liberation narratives have stressed solidarity between Africans, the outbreak of xenophobic violence that racked some communities in May 2008, and which has continued sporadically since then, deeply shocked many South Africans. It raised uncomfortable questions about townships, immigration, and responses by government and civil society. While xenophobia is a worldwide phenomenon, JEAN PIERRE MISAGO of the African Centre for Migration and Society, University of the Witwatersrand, reflected on causal factors, responses and policy implications of xenophobic violence; why in South Africa it can take such violent forms; and lessons that may have been learned since 2008.
  C 2011 Zapiro Reprinted with permission.
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Xenophobic violence has not gone away. In the year up to March 2011 there were 20 deaths and 40 injuries, 200 foreign-run shops were looted and thousands displaced. Unknown numbers have been threatened. Rumours that there would be widespread attacks after the Soccer World Cup were taken sufficiently seriously for the security forces to deploy.

What triggers this violence or threat of violence? Research by the African Centre for Migration and Society attempts to identify specific factors, based on case studies in Gauteng, Western Cape and Eastern Cape.


Xenophobia is fuelled by suspicions and myths: migrants tend to be blamed for crime, corruption and other socioeconomic ills; they are seen as the source of illegitimate competition for jobs, trade, women and houses. Violence may grow from this soil – but it does not always do so. Why, for instance, did some areas of Alexandra township experience fierce violence in May 2008, but others with identical socioeconomic profiles did not?


What are the key triggers of violence? Competition for formal and informal local leadership positions and for business opportunities is important. Where this takes violent form it is generally because local governance structures are absent, weak or considered illegitimate by the population.

Violence is not a quantitative degree of conflict but a qualitative form of conflict, with its own dynamics. Even where violence is clearly rooted in pre-existing conflict, it should not be treated as a natural, self-explanatory outgrowth of such conflict, something that occurs automatically when the conflict reaches certain intensity, a certain temperature.’ – Brubaker and Laitin 1998. ‘Ethnic and nationalist violence’, Annual Review of Sociology 4: 423-452

Where there is a leadership vacuum, ‘un-touchable’ and often violent leadership groups tend to emerge. Local leaders and would-be leaders mobilise residents to attack and evict foreigners so as to strengthen their personal power base in the local community, and local business owners instigate violence against what they perceive to be ‘illegitimate’ foreign competitors.


Thus, while lack of effective mechanisms for conflict resolution and of trust in local institutions leads to vigilantism and mob justice, effective leadership tends to prevent violence in potentially volatile areas.


What conclusions can be drawn about xenophobic violence? It seems to be most likely when accepted social controls or institutions are absent or weak, and when the reach of the state is feeble, allowing warlords and other non-official power centres to develop.


It tends to emerge at times of socioeconomic and political uncertainty. Does violence spread because of a copycat effect, or because the media give it publicity? Unlikely, since these theories do not explain why in 2008 some areas were racked by violence while others, very similar, were quiet. Similarly, allegations of a ‘third force’ were quickly withdrawn for lack of evidence.


The violence exposed serious tensions in communities but also weaknesses in the country’s ability to protect its residents. Unelected persons dictated who has the right to live and work in South Africa’s cities, revealing a growing territorial, nationalistic or ethnic understanding of rights and entitlements. The ominous lesson is that violence against groups out of favour was seen to make political and economic sense. If this is internalised, everyone is at risk.


State needs to step up


The state proved itself unable to protect its residents, responding slowly and indecisively to the outbreak of 2008. There seemed to be reluctance to intervene against the governing party’s ‛natural’ constituency. When intervention did come, it largely supported the intentions of the perpetrators. Papers were checked, followed by evacuation, deportation and repatriation of foreigners. Repatriation was ‛voluntary’, but camps were closed and people in them had to leave. Those ‛reintegrated’ were reinserted in communities where little had been done to alter the conditions that led to violence in the first place.


There have been some positive developments. There have been shifts in perception in some key departments, such as the police and disaster management. Some measures for proactive response have been implemented. There have been examples of quick and decisive responses to early signs of violence. Within civil society there have also been signs of an increased awareness of xenophobia as an urgent social problem, with some initiatives to promote tolerance and social cohesion.


But there are continued gaps. Reluctance to face realities by some prominent figures has negative consequences on responses and interventions. Social cohesion is a recognised political priority, but declarations at national level are rarely translated into concrete measures; community leadership and local governance issues are not addressed, and civil society organisations have failed to hold government accountable for protecting residents. Politicians do not want to face issues that could damage their power bases.

Where there is a leadership vacuum ‘untouchable’ and often violent leadership groups tend to emerge

Crucially, security responses are often inadequate and there is apparent impunity for perpetrators: most of those arrested for xenophobic attacks have been released without charge due to pressure from communities and their leaders. There has not been a single conviction for murder or rape, and nobody lost their job on account of xenophobic attacks. Real or perceived impunity can only encourage the ill-intentioned.


Preventative solutions


What is the way forward? It should be recognised that the situation that led to violence still exists: if those who attack see no consequences, they will probably do so again. Others may be encouraged to embark on attacks. Preventing them requires fundamental institutional reforms, but the motives behind the violence must be systematically investigated. Tensions must be monitored and early intervention take place where necessary. Accountability must be enforced and impunity not countenanced.

Conflict resolution is vital: trusted community-based conflict mechanisms that respect constitutional principles of universal rights and due process must be developed. Unlawful compromises, like limiting the number of foreign shops, must be avoided when attempting to resolve tensions between migrants and locals. Civil society must find ways to hold government accountable.