While the extent of xenophobic attacks may not be widely known, the broad facts are relatively clear.
For some time foreign-born Africans, and to some extent Asians, have been subjected to various forms of repression in democratic South Africa.
This xenophobic experience takes various forms. It may be harassment and abuse and demands for bribes when entering the country, or it may be the need to pay bribes to police to continue trading even when they are operating within the law. Alternatively bribes may be needed to enjoy a degree of immunity when trading illegally. It may entail the need to offer something in exchange for one or other necessity of life, for example sex with a landlord for a flat or some other form of shelter. There is also the vulnerability of foreigners as workers, especially when they do not have papers, making illegally low wages possible as well as dismissals without severance pay.
The physical repression is accompanied by a racist discourse which constantly links being from another part of Africa with criminality, as when police claim to have carried out a series of important arrests involving alleged illegal immigrants, who are often mentioned in the same breath as mandrax dealers.
There is official discourse and there is also prejudice amongst the general population, manifested not only against foreigners but also sometimes against sections of the South African population who are treated as inferior or as a dangerous “Other”.
There are different levels of insecurity experienced by foreign migrants in South Africa. Those who are “undocumented” migrants, without the papers entitling them to remain in South Africa, are nevertheless often able to forge a relationship with authorities enabling them to stay. Their residence is, however, suffused with constant insecurity. It may be subject to the kinds of payments or demands for sex listed above, or to periodic violence and the constant fear of the right to remain suddenly being revoked.
But it is not only undocumented migrants who experience harassment and deportation. Even those who are legally entitled to be in South Africa cannot feel secure. They may be pulled out of taxis simply because they are not South Africans.
Police may simply tear up their documents, rendering them liable for deportation, a pattern of conduct that has become systemic in the treatment of foreign Africans. Home Affairs officials are reported to treat asylum applicants in a demeaning manner, for example flinging their papers on the ground for them to pick up when they return them
The attacks on migrants as they struggle to set up businesses, sometimes by pooling their resources, is not something that flared up only in 2008 and again in 2014/2015, or only in the big cities. It is an ongoing, below-the-radar phenomenon in all the provinces of South Africa, in urban and rural areas. In many relatively remote areas Somali and other foreign migrants who have set up small shops periodically find them torched, their goods looted and their lives threatened, and sometimes they are even driven out of the area concerned.
There are many significant features in these xenophobic attacks, which we are told is not xenophobia but isolated criminal incidents, even though they have a specific character in that South Africans are not generally the targets.
Some meanings of the word xenophobia relate it to a hatred of foreigners, something psychological that erupts like a phobia. But those who are targeted are in the main foreign people who often live peacefully and amicably in South African communities, in some cases speaking the language of the communities with whom they stay. As merchants, many of them – especially, it seems, Somalians – are servicing communities with greater concern for their needs than local business people do or are able to do. Foreign shopowners work longer hours than South African spaza shopowners, and they often form informal buying cooperatives so that they are able to sell goods cheaper.
These are people who have come from strife-torn areas in search of peace, and they have a powerful need to survive and thrive, and to support their families here as well as send money back home.
The attacks on these communities are not spontaneous. It is remarkable how often the names of instigators are identified in newspapers, yet there are no reports of repercussions. It is notable that the attacks have been preceded by meetings of South African shopkeepers demanding that the foreigners close their shops and leave, which is completely illegal behaviour in itself. This has often been followed by supposedly spontaneous attacks, following real or alleged shootings by foreign shopkeepers. But it was remarked of the lootings in Bramfischerville last week, supposedly provoked by the killing of a local by a Somalian shopkeeper, that those who responded with “spontaneous anger” were ready, when they set off from Snake Park, with previously prepared petrol bombs. The looting that followed – may – have been unplanned, but not the torching.
We know that one Somalian shopkeeper is out on bail for alleged murder, but what of the attackers? How many have been charged and convicted in the 21 years of democracy? Has there been a single conviction? The police have always played an ambiguous role. Sometimes they have stood by while shops have been looted or foreign Africans attacked; sometimes they have themselves participated in the looting or helped others to loot; sometimes they have arrested looters or tried to curb the use of violence and played some role in securing the safe departure of the shopkeepers from the areas concerned.
The government is ambivalent. It will not use the word xenophobia and one asks why not, when it is necessary to name a phenomenon for what it is. In some cases serving cabinet ministers have attacked foreign shopowners, and the Minister for Small Business Development has implicitly set the sharing of business knowledge with local business people as a condition for foreign migrants practising their trade in peace.
Interestingly, it is reported that some Somalian business people in the Western Cape are assisting local business people, perhaps indicating their desire to be part of communities where they settle. But to treat this as – or even imply that it is – a condition for their right to live and practise their trade in peace is in violation of the human rights to which they are entitled.
When we focus on the hazards of life in South Africa for a person of foreign origin, we may lose sight of something wider. Certainly there are some rights in South African law and the constitution that are available only to South African citizens, but the protections of life and liberty and the pursuit of business activities, amongst others, are rights belonging to all inhabitants.
The resistance to apartheid was a struggle for human dignity, an aspiration to be treated without violation of one’s bodily integrity through violent assaults, and to pursue a range of activities that apartheid prevented. These are rights listed in most human rights documents, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 as universal rights, applicable to all human beings everywhere.
When we struggled for freedom in South Africa it was in the first place a struggle to free the inhabitants of this country. That is why we have documents like the Freedom Charter and our constitution, which are both indigenous and universal, that is, addressing specific rights and grievances that derive from the South African reality under apartheid yet also speaking to what is owed to all human beings. When we won freedom from apartheid it was not just for us but freedom for all to walk our streets and lanes in liberty and without fear, with due respect for their dignity and peaceful existence.
When foreign Africans and Asians are driven out of townships it is a negation of the freedom for which many gave their lives or were maimed, and a negation of the notion that freedom is indivisible.
Ironically, there are foreigners who live with complete freedom in South Africa, foreign business executives who are CEOs of top companies. They have no fear. They come and go without being accosted by police or barred by landlords. And that is how it should be.
It is the most vulnerable, and often the poorest of the poor, who are under attack. The shame is that this attack comes from a government pledged to freedom, a governing party whose leaders included Chief Albert Luthuli – who was born in former Rhodesia – and a government deriving from an organisation that was sheltered in many of the countries whose nationals are now under attack.
These attacks represent victimisation but they are also an attack on the freedom that belongs to all of us. These hard-won rights need the defence of all who cherish liberty.
Professor Raymond Suttner, attached to Rhodes University and UNISA spent over eleven years as a political prisoner or under house arrest. His book Recovering democracy in South Africa has just been published by Jacana Media. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner