South Africa’s government is playing down concerns that locals will turn on poor African migrants competing for scarce jobs in the continent’s largest economy when the curtain falls on the soccer World Cup on Sunday.
“So far what we are dealing with are rumours people have wittingly or unwittingly spread that is fuelling a hysteria of a possible outbreak,” Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa has told a news conference held to announce a new anti-xenophobia campaign.
Reuters reports migrants from African states and nongovernmental groups say foreigners have been leaving due to renewed threats of xenophobic violence in the country where attacks in 2008 left 62 migrants dead and around 100 000 homeless. There has been an outpouring of support in South Africa for other teams from the continent but migrants fear feelings of African unity will end when the Cup finishes.
But deputy home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba responded that there “have not been any reports that people are leaving because of fears of xenophobic violence.” He added Zimbabweans seen leaving Cape Town recently, for example, were seasonal migrant workers returning home.
The Reuters news service adds that the assaults have the potential to dampen investor sentiment and embarrass President Jacob Zuma’s government, which has pledged to reduce violence in a country whose reputation as Africa’s economic engine has been undercut by its high crime rate. South Africa’s liberal immigration and refugee policies and its poorly guarded borders have made it a haven for Africans looking for work in the country’s mines, farms and homes, where they battle for jobs in the country with at least a 25 percent unemployment rate.
Five million migrants
The number of migrants are estimated to be about five million, almost equal to the white population in a total population of about 49 million.
Sixteen years after white minority rule ended, millions of poor blacks are still living in desperate poverty and the government conceded that inadequate living conditions provoked them to turn on their African neighbours. “There are socio-economic challenges that we cannot ignore,” Mthethwa said. He said investigations have found another source of tension coming from shops run by migrants that appear to undercut local merchants on the prices of goods by avoiding local taxes and banking fees.
Mthethwa chairs a Cabinet-level inter-ministerial committee (IMC) that was tasked last month to follow up rumours of an impending pogrom and nip it in he bud. The “multi-faceted plan” seeks to prevent any outbreak of violence “and further called upon all civic organisations, political parties, youth formations and the religious fraternity to work together”.
Other ministries comprising the IMC include Home Affairs, Social Development, State Security, Basic Education, Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Arts and Culture as well as International Relations and Cooperation. Missing is the Department of Defence and Military Veterans.
Mthethwa told the media security agencies are on high alert to ensure “that threats and manifestations of violence against any individual or group are effectively addressed.” He said in the “unlikely event of another outbreak of violence against foreign nationals, or violence of any other form, government will take appropriate legal measure to bring perpetrators to book. Our security agencies are prepared to effectively deal with violence against anyone, including foreign nationals. We continue to monitor all and any threats. Should any be found to be credible, measures will be implemented immediately to prevent any outbreak of violence.”
Xenophobia driven by criminals
According to some of the findings conducted by government, the locus of these tensions is mainly driven by criminal elements in areas where there are high levels of poverty and unemployment, a statement isued by the government Communications and Information System (GCIS) said. Mthethwa noted “there has been a proliferation of businesses owned by foreign nationals in the townships and informal settlements across all provinces. Furthermore, there is a sharp increase in anti-foreigner sentiment spreading from metropolitan cities and surrounding townships to smaller towns and rural areas across South Africa.
“This scenario of tensions between owners of businesses owned by locals and foreign nationals has spawned an ugly element of criminal involvement, exploitation and manipulation of the situation. In many instances, criminals are aided and abetted by locals, particularly the youth – thus given a license by some local businesses to loot and pillage foreign businesses. In many instances, criminals carry out armed robberies at these shops under cover of these tensions.”
The IMC further noted that “the most disturbing factor is the marked involvement of unemployed young people in this ghastly manifestation of discontent. The perception amongst foreign shop-owners is that law enforcement agencies fail to protect them. Thus, as a response, foreign-owned business owners resort to defensive measures to prevent looting of their shops.
“It is a matter of common knowledge that some foreign nationals, particularly foreign nationals, do not register their presence in the country with relevant government institutions. Therefore, the integration of foreign nationals in society is crucial. This scenario leads to deep resentment and widespread tension,” the GCIS said.
Government’s strategy, in partnership with various organs of civil society in proactively curbing and averting these threats, is outlined in a multi-faceted and integrated plan:
· Proactive facilitation of a societal dialogue: this has taken place at various areas around the country comprising of police, churches, community policing forums and NG0s. “Communities need to blow the whistle against any criminals that are disguised behind xenophobia. Government has always and will always discourage covering up for criminals by community members. It also needs to be noted that the 2008 attacks against foreign nationals never spread to areas within Soweto and this can largely be attributed to a critical role played by community policing forums,” the GCIS says.
· Extension of the 2010 FIFA World Cup National Joint Committee: “The swift policing and justice approach that was witnessed during the World Cup will be adopted and continued, to respond to this issue of attacks against any form of criminality. Quick investigation, tighter sentencing and law enforcement agencies will not hesitate to act speedily and decisively against anyone found to incite violent acts against foreign nationals,” the GCIS adds.
· Strict monitoring of proliferation of businesses owned by foreign nationals and lack of regulation thereof: “These trends have now shifted from communities and moved towards smaller towns and rural areas. Once they settle in these areas, they then get involved in the informal economic sector. Most of these foreign communities regard South Africa as a viable economic sector; and some of the types of businesses operated by these foreign nationals include small shops, cellphone repairs and hawking products.”
· Review and derive lessons from the May/June 2008 incidents: “Some of the reasons for this trend include that after the attacks of May/June 2008, some foreigners looked for safer environments. We will utilise all the lessons learnt during this period to inform our approach going forward.”
· Reinforce civic education in society and within the law enforcement agencies: “This is not a new phenomenon but speaks to our new ‘re-skilling and cadre of cop’ [sic] approach that the South African Police Service has already begun. Ensuring we have officers who defend the weak, uphold the Constitution and are committed to fighting crime. The same approach will be escalated by government across society.”
· Development of a Government Communication Strategy: “The IMC noted and adopted that with immediate effect, GCIS will spearhead an effective and aggressive communication strategy to counter and mitigate the risk posed by the unbalanced media reports which still instill fear about possible attacks. Government takes the threats of violence against foreign nationals seriously and the matter is receiving our highest priority. Government reiterates that any attacks are totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” te GCIS media release says. “Working together united by our loyalty to the democratic constitution, single flag and a common nationhood we shall defeat the evils of hatred, intolerance and bigotry,” says Mthethwa.
SANDF not deployed
The DoDMV is meanwhile describing as “unfounded” media reports that the South African National Defence Force is deploying troops to assist the police in stabilising presumed hotspots.
Head of Communication Siphiwe Dlamini says these are in fact Operation Kgwele deployments in support of safeguarding the World Cup.
“In order to create a general condition of safety and security, the SANDF is, for the run-up to and duration of the Soccer World Cup (SWC) 2010, deployed in support of government in all the host cities. When host cities are in-between games, members of the SANDF together with the [police] are visibly deployed, conducting high-density operations to help ensure that the host cities and surrounding areas remain crime free during periods of low SWC 2010 activity.
“These operations are planned by the different Provincial Joint Operations structures and take the form of joint patrols within the host cities and immediate surroundings.
“Media reports that would intimate that these joint patrols are linked to possible xenophobic attacks are unfounded. These high density operations are the landward component of the SANDF’s mandate to ensure a general condition of safety and security for the SWC 2010. To this end, maritime operations are being conducted in harbours and harbour entrances by the SA Navy and similarly, air space patrols are conducted by the SA Air Force.”