In the past one and a half weeks South Africa has witnessed a spate of violence sweeping over the country. The violence started in Tshwane in which community members fought running battles with the police following the shooting of a man at a taxi rank over allegations of drug dealing. The violence quickly degenerated into the looting of foreign owned shops. Beginning on Monday this week, Johannesburg and surrounding areas have been witnessing ugly scenes of violence directed against foreign nationals. The violence, characterised by looting of foreign owned shops and the destruction pf property, leaves in its trail trauma and loss of life. Five people have died since the violence hit Johannesburg. While the violence and looting was directed at shops perceived to be owned by migrants some South African establishments including FOS partner, the Casual Workers Advice Office (CWAO) were not spared. The CWAO’s offices were thrashed and their property stolen during the attack. There were even attempts to burn it down. While no stuff member was physically harmed the incidents is worrying and the working environment still remains tense and unsafe.
The offices of CWAO before and after the attack
As the world increasingly becomes a global village, the increased movement of people within and across borders usually results in tensions driven by notions of otherness, including the idea that immigrants are different to, and a possible threat to the citizens. In South Africa such perceptions are almost given credence by the exclusionary labour and migration framework. Prejudice, exclusion and xenophobic attitudes towards migrants, particularly African migrants have been steadily building up over the years. Such views are carried though the negative framing and perception of migrants (Black African migrants) as fleecing the health care system, migrants as being behind the increase in crime rate, with Nigerian immigrants synonymous with drugs dealing, while Zimbabweans are blamed for undercutting wages.
The escalating anti-immigration debate and how it is aimed more at African immigrants, as opposed to other groups of immigrants is worrying because it fails to take into consideration the real reason behind the movement of people. It also fails to question the reasons why after twenty five years of democratic dispensation the redistribution of socio economic rights in South Africa still does not translate or articulate poor people’s expectations of democracy. The fixation for migrant exclusion, and especially exclusion of Black African immigrants has mainly been registered through public discourses as well as other displays of anger. The world will never forget the 2008 xenophobic violence that gripped the country. In the aftermath of the violence 62 people were dead and thousands displaced.
While no single cause of xenophobia can be pointed out as it is a result of a complex set of issues, xenophobic attacks in South Africa come against a backdrop of exclusionary labour and immigration. The exclusion dates back to the 19th Century, for example, the history of labour migration particularly regulating the movement of Black immigrant labourers is tied to a history of exclusion, with migrant workers restricted to compounds .
During this period, the country has also had to deal with an onslaught of violence against women, among others the rape and murder of a university student, Uyinene Mrwetyana at a post office where she had gone to collect a parcel as well as the kidnap of 6 year old Amy-Leigh de Jager who was kidnapped while was being dropped off at school. Latest reports indicate that the child was found physically unharmed, no doubt though that the ordeal must have been traumatising for her and family members. Janika Mazllo is another 14-year-old girl who was found murdered in a backyard of her grandmother’s home while boxing champion Leighandre “Baby Lee” Jegels, allegedly shot dead by her policeman boyfriend. Her mother was injured in the attack.
While there has been a condemnation of the events of the past few days, from civil society organisations and human rights groups, the states’ response is worrying. The government through the Department of Police has been at pains to dismiss the violence, the looting and damage of property owned by foreign nationals as ‘sheer criminality’. The failure of the government to take a stand and call the violence for what it is – xenophobia, undermines a legitimate concern. The Presidency has been notable of its silence in both regards, raising critical issues around leadership.
These incidences bring to the spotlight power dynamics and the subsequent targeting of those perceived as weak as well as notions of masculinity based on aggression and control. The FOS Socialist Solidarity Southern Africa and Belgium offices stand in solidarity with all survivors and victims of violence and strongly condemns xenophobia and gender based violence (GBV).