Xenophobia quo vadis?

June 1st, 2015

By Mapula Thebe – editor

South Africa is hailed as having one of the best constitutions in the world, yet in April as the country was about to celebrate 21 years of democracy the country experienced a wave of xenophobic attacks, leaving many foreign nationals displaced from their homes and having to live in camps. Reports of these attacks in mainstream and social media reached every corner of the world, putting to shame the achievements the country has made in the past 21 years.

 The xenophobic attacks started in Durban on 14 April. Police reports state that they were sparked by South Africans who accused a supermarket of firing South African workers   and hiring foreigners to replace them. The attacks forced foreigners living in the areas of Isipingo, Chatsworth, Umlazi, KwaMashu and Sydenham out of their homes and into displacement camps set up by the government.

The wave of violence was remnant of the 2008 xenophobic attacks, where approximately 60 people were killed and 50 000 displaced from their homes. The 2008 attacks, in   townships around Johannesburg, were sparked after a Somali shop owner shot and killed a 14-year-old boy during an alleged burglary.

 Organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) expressed concerns on the spate of xenophobia. The UNHCR received numerous reports from foreign nationals, at the time, stating that they were afraid to move around the country at the fear of being attacked. The UNHCR, LHR and Refugee Social Services worked with local authorities to ensure that assistance and services were provided to those who had been displaced.

Although South Africa has one of the most progressive refugee policies and laws, they are not being properly implemented. During the violent attacks, government suggested that refugee camps be set up to process people before they are let into the country. This was to help curb the number of undocumented immigrants. The notion of setting up refugee camps was criticised as unconstitutional and not in line with the Refugee Act by LHR.

Following the recent spate of xenophobic attacks in the country, the draft National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (action plan) is likely to be presented to Cabinet during the current 2015/2016 financial year and released for public commenting. The action plan has been in the pipeline for almost 14 years. Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, John Jeffery, at a consultative workshop on the action plan on 15 May said that the process relating to the development of the action plan stemmed from the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, which was adopted at the 3rd World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban in 2001.

Deputy Minister Jeffery said that the finalisation of the action plan has been a long protracted process for many reasons. Since being drafted, the action plan has had to be redrafted and updated with due regard to developments in the country and in accordance with the latest United Nations Guidelines published in 2014. The action plan will provide the basis for the development of a comprehensive framework for public policy to address the scourges of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Mr Jeffery said the action plan is not intended to replace any existing laws and policies, rather to complement existing and new legislation, government policies and programmes that address equality, equity and discrimination. He added that the practical implementation of the action plan, once finalised, will be enhanced through the collection, analysis and publication of reliable data to assess the situation of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance as recommended by the United Nations Practical Guide. The Justice Department intends to develop and implement a long-term tool for compiling periodical assessments of behaviours, attitudes and prevalence of incidents, and to develop future interventions. The tool may take the form of a toll-free hotline that will be easily accessible to the public for the reporting of incidents linked to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Meanwhile, the Co-chairpersons of the Law Society of South Africa, Busani Mabunda and Richard Scott made a R 50 000 donation to the Gift of the Givers Foundation towards assistance for the victims of xenophobic violence. In addition, the KwaZulu-Natal Law Society and the Law Society of the Northern Provinces have offered the services of attorneys to assist victims, both foreign and local, on a pro bono basis (see 12).

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This article was first published in De Rebus in 2015 (June) DR 3.