|No. 138: They live in fear of their neighbours / Webster Zambara / Cape Argus|
9 June 2010
Rarely have foreigners of African descent living in South Africa's "rainbow nation" felt under such threat as they do now.
For them, Africa's first World Cup, rather than promising any tear-welling displays of pan-African togetherness, seems to herald an imminent threat to life and limb from their South African hosts. It's not the terrorist threat, but their neighbours, that they fear.
Two years after the horrific xenophobic attacks of May 2008 that left 62 people dead and more than 100 000 squatting in makeshift camps, the government has extended few guarantees of safety to its guests from other African countries.
Recent rumours and threats of more violence have sown widespread fear.
Many Zimbabweans, for example, have started packing their valuables to send home, fearing a repeat of the devastating material losses that they suffered in 2008.
These fears have been given added substance by recent anti-foreigner attacks across the country.
In the two years after May 2008, the Western Cape alone has seen at least three major outbreaks of such violence.
First came the looting of businesses owned by foreigners, mainly Somalis, that erupted in October of that year.
The attacks followed the horrific murders of more than 30 Somali shopkeepers two years earlier.
Although the more recent violence against Somalis was eventually stemmed, no compensation was offered for the goods lost.
The second recent outbreak came in November in De Doorns, where mainly Zimbabwean farmworkers were targeted.
Third, in March, the SA Human Rights Commission (HRC) in Cape Town alerted police about pamphlets distributed in Samora Machel informal settlement in Philippi, warning foreigners to leave.
Actions to resolve such conflicts have been successful in some areas in Masiphumelele, community leaders negotiated the reintegration of evicted foreign nationals.
However, in many cases and despite concerted efforts by local municipalities, civil society and the HRC, reintegrating the affected victims have been less than successful, and peaceful co-existence remains a distant goal.
Meanwhile, rumours spread of more attacks to come.
The story that a wave of xenophobic attacks will be unleashed as soon as football's biggest jamboree ends or after Bafana Bafana are knocked out is commonplace.
Low-level skirmishes and conflict are already taking place.
A particularly notorious story currently being spread by word of mouth repeats inflammatory declarations that have been made by passengers at train stations that the days of standing in carriages will soon be over "because those from 'far' who take 'our' seats will be sent packing come 11 July" (when the World Cup ends).
Everyday harassment of foreigners living in South Africa is common. A friend of mine was recently cheated by a taxi driver.
He boarded a taxi to town a trip that normally costs R8. He passed a R20 note to the driver and, as the taxi approached my friend's destination, he politely demanded his change.
Recognising him as a foreigner from his speech, the driver just ignored him.
Two elderly people on the front seat tried to assist my friend by relaying the message in the vernacular, but the driver would hear none of it.
Against this backdrop, the government has made only the most token efforts to address the issue.
Its announcement last week of the re-establishment of an inter-ministerial committee to probe xenophobic threats looks good on paper.
But analysts have questioned whether the initiative even if it does actually take place will have any effect, given that its announcement was accompanied by the incredible official claim that the government had received no concrete intelligence of any threat to foreigners.
On behalf of the government, spokesman Themba Maseko also appeared to use the occasion of the body's launch to excuse popular xenophobia. "We do understand that as competition for limited resources occurs, some of our citizens tend to suggest or believe the presence of foreign nationals is contributing to their not having access to jobs and resources," he said.
The official mealy-mouthed rhetoric speaks of a lack of concern and a lack of preparedness in the event of serious violence breaking out.
Such has been the official refusal properly to address the issue that the HRC was forced in March to subpoena the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) to discover what steps it had taken to address the issues raised by the May 2008 attacks.
The commission sought the information in a bid to foster the development of an early warning system to prevent attacks on foreigners.
However, the NIA stonewalled, denying that it had received any such formal request.
Reporting on issues of law and justice that arose from the 2008 attacks, the commission concluded that government and state institutions from the police to the presidency had responded too slowly to the attacks, and had failed to make plans for such violence.
Following up its findings, the HRC joined with the Commission on Gender Equality, the Independent Electoral Commission and the Office of the Public Protector last month in calling for a clear, co-ordinated response from the government to the continuing threat of violence against foreigners from the rest of the continent.
Launching an anti-xenophobia campaign with the slogan "Don't touch my sister, don't touch my brother", the alliance also appealed to the media to "ensure responsible communication".
When xenophobic attacks occurred in 2008 the government tried to convince the world that the violence was "spontaneous".
However, this time around no one will be able to say that they did not know in advance what was about to happen.
If the government wants the World Cup with its six teams from the continent to be a truly African one, it must act now and send out a clear signal that it is concerned by the prospect of such violence and that, should it occur, it will act with determination and strength to stem its tide.
Webster Zambara is a senior project officer at the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town.