23 June 2008
South Africa’s political parties were united in their condemnation of the attacks against people from other African countries that flared up in various parts of South Africa in May, displacing up to 32 000 people.
During a joint sitting of Parliament in Cape Town last week, speaker after speaker mounted the podium to denounce the wave of violence that saw people from neighbouring countries being assaulted and in some cases killed.
Leading the debate on a parliamentary report that probed the violence was African National Congress (ANC) MP Obed Bapela, who said that the attacks took place in the poorest areas of the country, and that even then it was “only in the corners of these communities” where the attacks were initiated.
Just “a few people” had launched the attacks that began in the township of Alexandra in Johannesburg, Gauteng province and spread as far as Cape Town.
No ‘third force’
However, the possibility that a so-called “third force” or organised grouping was behind the violence had been ruled out, Bapela said, pointing out that the attacks had taken place in the poorest areas of already indigent neighbourhoods.
A number of other factors had played a role in the wave of attacks that had shocked the country and dented South Africa’s image abroad, Bapela said.
Key among these were intolerant attitudes towards people from other countries, the result of ignorance and lack of international awareness by South Africans. This had facilitated the creation of a climate of jealously and suspicion which was exploited by criminals.
Explaining the absence of a sense of solidarity with people from other African countries, many of which gave refuge to South African exiles during apartheid, Bapela said that average age of the people arrested during the violence was between 16 and 22.
Being prosecuted in special courts on charges ranging from assault and murder to looting and housebreaking, these youths were only a few years old when the country began its transformation in 1994, and were largely ignorant of the African values and beliefs carried by their elders, he said.
Furthermore, the massive migration the world was experiencing had led to a situation where over six million people from other countries were living in South Africa, compared with about half a million before 1994.
While people from other countries were contributing to the vibrancy of the economy, there was also a perception among many South Africans that they were competing for scarce resources, Bapela said.
While the growth in the country’s gross domestic product has been averaging around 5 percent over the past few years, unemployment levels were high and over 12 million South Africans – a quarter of the population – were receiving some form of social grant.
While lack of knowledge and awareness about other African nationals and cultures also provided a context in which to understand the violence, Bapela said a perception in communities that people from other countries were usurping resources such as jobs, houses and even women had contributed to an atmosphere of suspicion.
“People are beginning to say, ‘They are taking our jobs, they are taking our women, they are taking our houses’,” Bapela said, despite the lack of hard evidence to support such claims.
At the same time, the number of undocumented people from other countries in South Africa was “a concern”. The country’s porous borders, the question of the police rather than the army being responsible for patrolling them, and corruption in the Department of Home Affairs, were raised as key concerns in Parliament’s report.
‘We are all Africans’
Nonetheless, “We are all Africans”, Bapela said, adding that this would be the slogan of a national campaign to create deeper awareness among South Africans and facilitate the reintegration of people from other countries into local communities.
This was echoed by Motsoko Pheko of the Pan Africanist Congress, who said that “Africans cannot be foreigners in Africa”.
He added that he understood that about one-third of the approximately 60 people whose deaths were directly linked to the anti-foreigner violence were actually South African citizens.
Sheila Camerer of the Democratic Alliance praised the parliamentary report as “laudably inclusive, consultative and thorough”.
Govt ‘must take responsibility’
However, she said the government had to “shoulder responsibility” for the situation, pointing out that the failure to process people from other countries was a “short-term catalyst” for the recent violence.
Camerer said that while the police, as well as many members of local governments and civil society, had done a “wonderful job” in ending the violence and assisting the victims, short-, medium- and long-term strategies were now needed to deal with the problem.
Parliament had to provide leadership, assess the entire legislative framework governing foreign nationals, and addressing corruption in the Department of Home Affairs, she said.
It should should also look at police capacity to deal with such outbreaks of violence, and closely monitor both the reintegration process and the prosecution in special courts of those arrested during the violence.
Pieter Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus party said care should be taken around allowing six million people from other countries to compete with South Africans for resources.
South Africa had to “protect its own citizens against immigration”, he said, pointing to neighbouring Botswana’s “strong rules” about admission to the country.
Another MP said steps should be taken to remove the expression “amakwerekwere” – used to describe people from other African countries in a derogatory way – from the national lexicon.