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Awethu! joins the call for an urgent end to the xenophobic atrocities bedevilling the country.

Awethu! A People’s Platform for Social Justice was launched in November 2013 with a very specific mandate: to work for social justice in South Africa with like-minded civil society organisations. Since then, Awethu! has had contact with more than 1 000 non-governmental and community-based formations across all provinces, all of which are committed to addressing South Africa’s extensive socio-economic inequalities by working for fulfilment of the promises of social justice set out in our country’s powerful Constitution and in a plethora of government documents.

Awethu!’s concern about the spate of xenophobic attacks that started in January in Soweto and have spread across the country, with a concentration of incidents currently taking place in KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng, is firmly rooted in this commitment to social justice.

It has to be acknowledged by everyone – government and civil society - that xenophobia is a social justice issue. And social justice cannot be selective. We cannot decide to support social justice for some and not for others. It is particularly important for us as South Africans to speak out against ethnically-based discrimination of this kind – we have, after all, only recently liberated ourselves from the institutionalised racial discrimination of the apartheid system.

One positive outcome of the latest eruption of xenophobia is that at least some people in government are finally acknowledging that these attacks cannot simply be dismissed as the actions of criminals, but are specifically aimed at foreign nationals and must therefore be recognised as xenophobic. But this is not the accepted position of the whole of government – and so the views of the few are not enough to make government change its policies. In addition, there are mixed messages regarding the roots of the xenophobic conflicts (unemployment, poverty, lack of economic opportunity and the many other socio-economic challenges facing the poor and vulnerable in our country) with some acknowledging that these have to be addressed to remove one of the key triggers for such attacks and others saying these are not actually causal factors in the attacks. Clarity on this would provide an answer to Minister of Police Nathi Nhleko’s question as to why we don’t see British and Australian migrants being chased down the street – it’s because they are not competing with the poor and vulnerable for jobs and housing!

Denialism by the state of xenophobia and its root causes is having the same result as the AIDS denialism of the 2000s – people dying unnecessarily. Because government did not recognise HIV AIDS for what it was, it not only did not put in appropriate processes for dealing with the pandemic, it also made it much more difficult for civil society to achieve anything significant. In situations like this, it is imperative that the state plays a leading role, creating an enabling environment for everyone to work together effectively to address the crisis. It is impossible for civil society to have any meaningful impact if its work is being actively hampered by state denialism and inaction. On the AIDS issue, it took court action by the Treatment Action Campaign and a change in ANC leadership for denialism to be rejected and for reality to be acknowledged. What will it take government to change its position on xenophobia?

There is no-one that can argue that these continued attacks are in the interest of the ordinary people of our country. Apart from the fact that attacking foreign nationals is not addressing the root causes of the socio-economic challenges facing poor and vulnerable communities, the looting, assaulting and killing of foreign nationals is creating a criminalised, brutalised layer of people, including children, which will result in psychologically damaged communities for generations to come.

So what needs to be done?

Government must acknowledge the responsibility it has in providing leadership on this issue and:

• Publicly acknowledge the reality of xenophobia and its root causes – on this, there must be one clear and unambiguous message coming from government in all sectors and all spheres. (Before this is done, there must be proper consultation with key stakeholders in civil society, including the foreign national community and international human rights and refugee bodies, in order to ensure the correct messaging).
• Speak out instantly when public figures make inflammatory statements, making it clear that government does not support the position articulated by the person and calling on them to withdraw, clarify and apologise.
• Embark on an ongoing, nation-wide awareness-raising programme to help people to understand the incorrectness of xenophobia and the need for social cohesion throughout the country, using traditional media (radio, TV, newspapers, billboards etc), social media, and education programmes in schools and other institutions. Such awareness-raising programmes must be aimed at South Africans and migrants alike and include the promotion of adherence by all to the provisions of the constitution of the country and the laws of the land.
• Fast-track programmes to eradicate the socio-economic challenges facing poor and vulnerable communities, thereby removing one of the key reasons for attacks on foreign nationals in those communities – if this means re-orienting the budget, then so be it. The speedy eradication of inequality should be the main priority of government and the country anyway.
• Develop coherent immigration policies and regulations that allow legal entry into the country for refugees and asylum-seekers as well as those seeking economic opportunities while ensuring that such entry is properly – and speedily in the case of refugees and asylum-seekers– managed through the implementation of efficient systems.
• Eliminate all forms of corruption and xenophobia in Home Affairs (including immigration offices at border posts), the SAPS, SANDF border patrols and other government departments that contribute to the disorderly and sometimes unlawful management of migrants and migrant documentation and thereby fuel xenophobia.
• Give support to, and work in partnership with, civil society initiatives that are addressing the symptoms and the causes of xenophobia.

Civil society (non-governmental organisations and community-based organisations) must take responsibility as well and:

• Pressurise government into confronting xenophobia head-on by implementing the steps outlined above, thereby creating an enabling environment within which the challenges of xenophobia can be properly addressed by all role-players.
• Raise awareness in their own sectors and communities about the issue and promote social cohesion, neighbourliness and tolerance.
• Speak out quickly and forcefully whenever acts of a xenophobic nature take place in their sectors or communities, making it clear that they will not remain silent and allow such acts to go unchallenged.
• Work for the full integration of migrants into their communities and into their community structures so as to ensure that emerging problems can be quickly and easily solved by dialogue between all stakeholders.
• Work to help community members to understand that migrants are not the cause of their socio-economic problems and to develop an awareness of the underlying economic and political factors that are contributing to their plight. Encourage community members to organise themselves and work actively for those underlying factors to be proactively and speedily addressed by government, big business and other role-players.

In the meantime, government and civil society must work speedily to solve the immediate crisis.

• Government must make a clear statement acknowledging the reality of xenophobia and giving a commitment to deal with it firmly and fairly.
• The SAPS must intervene in a robust, but fair and incorruptible manner, to stop all forms of xenophobic violence, including the assault and killing of foreign nationals, the looting of their goods and the destruction of their property. Migrants who are alleged to be breaking the law must also have action taken against them. If the SAPS cannot cope, other forces must be brought in to assist.
• Those allegedly responsible for xenophobic attacks must be identified, arrested and charged. If convicted, they must serve appropriate sentences. It must become clear to all concerned that there will be consequences for perpetrators of such attacks.
• All role-players must fast-track the voluntary repatriation of those who want to return to their home countries and the full re-integration into communities of those who wish to stay.
• Proper records must be kept and published of all xenophobia-related incidents in order for everyone to understand fully the nature and extent of the problem.
• Government must not just have an internal task team of ministers addressing the issue, but establish a national forum of government, civil society (including migrant civil society structures) and big business which must collectively deliberate and agree on a way forward, both to address the current crisis, but also to put in place measures that will prevent such attacks happening in the future.
• Civil society, especially community-based organisations, must make it clear that they will not tolerate such attacks in their areas and that they will work with others to formulate rapid response mechanisms to stop them taking place.

A social injustice to one is a social injustice to all! Meaningful steps to give permanent life to this slogan will be a fitting tribute to Emmanuel Sithole, Tesema Marcus, Dava Sabastio, Thabo Mzobe, Msawenkosi Dlamini, Sibongile Mthembu and other foreign nationals and South Africans who have died recently and in the past as a result of xenophobic conflict.

Awethu! A People’s Platform for Social Justice
[email][email protected]
011 3564114
082 3737705 (Maurice Smithers, National Coordinator)