Pietermaritzburg Says NO to Xenophobia

Pietermaritzburg Says NO to Xenophobia

Category : Archived News

The recent months we have again seen the horrible face of xenophobia spreading through our country resulting in an estimated 7 deaths. More than 5,000 people were forced to flee their homes with lives destroyed and living in fear. In Pietermaritzburg about 135 people, mainly from Malawi, fled their homes and were housed, by the municipality, at Dale’s Park in terrible living conditions, while awaiting repatriation back to their country of birth. PACSA has joined a number of faith-based NGO organizations to state clearly our opposition to xenophobia (see here) and created safe spaces for those who live in fear.

Many of us are still trying to come to terms with this violence, even as we know that attacks on foreign nationals are occurring in South Africa in various guises even when not labelled as xenophobia. The images of the killing of Mido Macia, dragged by a police vehicle in the township of Daveyton, in Gauteng, on 26 February 2013, remains with us as do many other attacks on foreign nationals. In trying to build a livelihood through trading, foreign nationals face more stringent requirements to access a trading license from municipalities and now many have lost their livelihoods. Many South Africans living in the communities where this violence occurred condemned it.  

The following thoughts have emerged from our reflections in PACSA. These are not necessarily well-organized or exhaustive – it is our attempt to make sense of our past few weeks.

The attacks on people, not born here in South Africa, do not affect all foreign nationals (or foreigners from outside Africa) – it affects those living in the poorest and least resourced communities. These are shopkeepers, unemployed people, or people with access to very low-paid jobs. In these conditions, where competition is rife for scarce resources, some in marginalized communities view foreigner nationals as rivals for jobs, houses, or other resources. In reality people born outside South Africa are blamed for the failure of the state to deal with deep economic inequality and its failure to implement policies that create jobs and grow the South African economy. It’s the dire socio-economic circumstances for the majority of South Africans that is the fertile ground from which myths are created about foreigners taking jobs and from which xenophobia emerges.

Instead of venting their anger at the state, those who take part in this violence are venting their anger against other poor people in a struggle for resources to create livelihoods. In this sense xenophobia is not unlike gender-based violence in that those closest become the victims. Instead of confronting the source of our anger – in this case the systemic poverty and lack of access to resources that affords us dignity – we hit out at those who are closest to us. Those excluded and marginalized turn on other poor people and the wealthy continue to escape blame.

The response of the state to the violence was slow and not coordinated. Not much was done to ensure that xenophobia is addressed as a societal issue since 2008. It seems we deal with the outbreaks and not with the deeper causes which is economic, political and cultural. Another reflection to note is that it is becoming increasingly clear that the ANC is losing moral authority because they were unable to stop the violence. The state had to resort to its coercive might – the police and the army.

It is interesting to note that as the xenophobia violence is being brought under control by the army and police in South Africa we read of the drowning of hundreds of African migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea to enter Europe. This is a global form of xenophobia, just as violent as the xenophobia attacks in South Africa have been but perhaps a little less overt and hidden by history. Many of the African migrants are forced into Europe because their lands, livelihoods and resources have been decimated through colonialism and other continuing forms of extraction and exploitation. Global xenophobia is fueled by our state identities which distinguish between local and foreign (non-South African; non-British; etc.). Perhaps this ‘anti-foreigner’ sentiment we see globally is challenging us to not only delve much deeper into the historical and current neoliberal causes which are perpetuating this ‘othering’ of people but also to re-imagine the global economy and the very notion of nationality and state-hood.


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