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Refugee Rights News
Volume 4, Issue 4
June 2008

South Africans, Foreigners and the Dynamics of Identity in South Africa

Questions of legitimacy, over who has the "right" to live where, are growing around the world, and nowhere have antagonistic articulations of identity been more graphically illustrated than in the recent attacks on foreigners in South Africa. The sheer scale and brutality of the attacks, which left over 60 people dead and tens of thousands displaced, took many by surprise. Yet, neither spontaneous nor unique, linkages between violence and xenophobia in South Africa have been evident for several years. Warnings have gone unheeded, and the recent upsurge of violence is the inevitable outcome of chronic government inertia – or worse. South Africa, the self-proclaimed "Rainbow Nation," has powerfully illustrated the power of xenophobic sentiment when left unchecked.

As the country now begins to lick its wounds in the aftermath of this intense display of violence, questions are being asked as to how something of this magnitude could have happened. Specifically, it raises uncomfortable questions about notions of identity within South Africa and the way in which lines have been drawn between those who are from within and those who are from outside.

So what does it mean to be South African?

Xenophobic violence, based on exclusive notions of belonging, did not take place in a vacuum, and recent events bring into sharp focus competing visions of life in South Africa. Questions of national identity are complex at best, not least given the country’s history of apartheid, which, by definition, was premised on notions of difference. While the legacy of apartheid is well-rehearsedthe shocking reality is how little has changed for so many since the first inclusive elections in 1994. For the majority of South Africans, life continues to be dominated by a plethora of social ills, including growing levels of poverty, chronic high levels of HIV/AIDs infection, deepening inequality, violence against women and children, and growing racial and inter-ethnic intolerance. Poor domestic economic policies have left tens of thousands of young South Africans unemployed, frustrated and very angry.

Within this context, foreigners are seen as a threat and their presence has provided an easy scapegoat for social ills. Civilian prejudice has been reinforced at a political level, not least in the treatment of foreigners by those with a mandate to protect, including law enforcement agents, and xenophobic sentiment has been left to fester. While political rhetoric since the violence has emphasized its uniqueness, in fact it represents the conclusion of years of poor economic policies on top of decades of structural abuse: it has generated a South African identity that projects foreigners as rivals for limited economic resources, ignoring the positive economic impact that foreigners have had.

This is the context in which the violence took place: it is not an excuse, but points to some of the underlying problems of which the violence was symptomatic: 14 years on from the political end of apartheid, the gaps remain between the official discourse of truth and reconciliation in a country that embraces difference, versus some of the realities on the ground.

What does it mean to be foreign in South Africa?

The scale of migration into and within South Africa is vast by any standard. South Africa offers economic possibilities unequalled on much of the continent, and has provided asylum for many who have fled conflict in their own country. While the majority has remained on the margins of the economy, many have done well for themselves and are not only able to support themselves but are contributing to the local economy as well as sending money to family at home or elsewhere. Many are migrants, while others are refugees and asylum seekers – although distinctions are often blurred.

On paper, South Africa is something of a model country for hosting refugees, a party to the 1951 UN and 1969 OAU Refugee Conventions. The country’s 1998 Refugees Act, which has been in effect since 2000, is one of the most progressive pieces of refugee legislation on the continent. It prohibits refusal of entry, expulsion or extradition of refugees, and includes in its definition of refugees individuals who have been forced to leave their home countries because of “events seriously disturbing or disrupting public order in either a part of the whole of [that] country.” Refugees are granted freedom of movement on account of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of movement to all people in South Africa, as well as the right to work. It even promises free anti-retroviral treatment for all those with HIV/AIDS.

Yet, this progressive legal framework is not reflected in reality for the majority of foreigners living in South Africa. Zimbabweans, for instance, face considerable challenges in accessing asylum, not least given President Mbeki’s refusal to acknowledge the current crisis in Zimbabwe. The South African government has deported tens of thousands of Zimbabweans in the past few years, often because the Department for Home Affairs is failing to process their cases for asylum. Thus, despite the rhetoric from the government condemning the attacks, it is clear that the hostile treatment of foreigners comes from the top. In particular, the extent to which the government has failed to respond to previous violence makes it culpable for what has just taken place. Xenophobic attacks, including against refugees and asylum seekers who fled to South Africa seeking protection against persecution and attack in their home countries, have been reported since 2000. For instance, one hundred Somali refugees were allegedly killed in attacks in 2006, according to the US Committee for Refugees.

Similarly, research carried out by the Forced Migration Studies Centre at the University of the Witswatersrand demonstrates that, “…citizens are often prepared to exclude foreigners through vigilantism and systematic harassment when popular sentiment deems state territorial controls inadequate. Many justify such actions by blaming non-citizens for the country’s most visible social pathologies – crime, HIV/AIDS and unemployment.” This, in turn, has helped to legitimize discrimination by officials, thus eroding the rights of refugees and migrants. For instance, refugee children are reportedly often excluded from schooling, and migrants are refused health services, especially emergency care. Likewise, many have been denied access to formal banking systems, making them particular targets of theft.

Thus, in the wake of the attacks, it is hardly surprising that more than 20,000 Mozambicans have reportedly fled the country; and 25,000 Zimbabweans have indicated they want to leave according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), preferring to risk the violence in their own country. However, Zimbabweans, Congolese and others whose homeland remains in a state of crisis, will continue to be displaced or at risk of renewed displacement even if they return to their country. For many, therefore, they have little choice but to stay in South Africa despite fear for their own personal safety. (See the statement issued by Forum des Organisations Congolaises en Afrique du Sud (FOCAS), http://www.focascongo.org.)

Irreconcilable identities?

The South African Human Rights Commission talks of the recent xenophobic attacks as “betraying the vision of the majority of South Africans who wanted to identify themselves with the vision that the founders of the OAU had for Africa.” While this may be true, the scale and impact of the recent violence shows that this is a vision that has yet to be realized, both on the ground and, one could argue, at the top. In other words, poor economic policies, coupled with unfair treatment of foreigners conspire against the ideal of pan-Africanism heralded by government and commentators alike as an antidote to such violence. Thus, until such time as the government puts its money where its mouth is and brings about transformation for those who remain at the bottom of South Africa’s economic pile, xenophobia is only going to continue. It is neither right nor pleasant, but it is reality, and the government needs to respond accordingly.

So, what does the future hold? Clearly, it is impossible to make generalizations about"South African" identityjust as it would be a mistake to label all "foreigners" the same. Yet, the recent violence was premised precisely on such exclusive notions of identity, which targeted people on the basis of their foreignness. While the majority of South Africans neither participated in nor condoned the violence that took place, a small but powerful minority instigated and participated in killing and looting people on the basis of their nationality. In this context, the competing visions of inclusiveness and a pan-African ideal in the context of a progressive Rainbow Nation were shown to be incompatible with the harsh realities of life. What is now critical, however, is whether or not it is possible for "foreigners" to return to their South African homes and continue with their lives, and if not, what does it mean for refugees and asylum seekers who are unable to return home due to fear of violence in their own country?

Finally, it is important to emphasize that xenophobic violence is by no means unique to South Africa. This recent violence brings into focus broader issues of migration, whether forced or not, on the African continent and beyond. The question of what it means to be Congolese or Zimbabwean or Somali, and what it means to be African, are going to be critical to the future of the continent. With increased disjuncture between nationality and territory for thousands of people, the need to create local, national and regional environments that create legitimate space for diversity is critical. In other words, states need to wake up and recognize current realities and adjust their policies and approaches accordingly, or there is much worse to come.