The video that emerged on YouTube last weekend of a Somali man lying flat in a Port Elizabeth street has shocked many South Africans out of a general complacence over the rising incidence of violence against foreigners in the country. The 25-year-old man, Abdi Nasir Mahmoud Good, died of his injuries. Good is just one of the victims of the xenophobic violence that flared through northern Port Elizabeth and up to four other towns and cities across the country last week. Five other Somalis were injured in the violence and almost every Somali-owned business in Port Elizabeth’s Booysen Park was burned or looted.
Despite the targeting, the South African government has been quick to caution against labelling this surge in violence as xenophobia because “preliminary evidence indicates that these acts may be driven primarily by criminality”. Labelling the violence as just crime creates a false debate, said Biniam Misgun, lecturer in the School of Sociology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in Durban. “When you see a group intentionally attacked and their shops looted because they are foreign, then you cannot just say it’s criminality driving this,” Misgun told Al Jazeera. Misgun’s assertions that these are hate crimes are corroborated by statistics. In 2011, around 120 foreign nationals were killed, of whom five were burnt alive. In 2012, 140 foreigners were killed and 250 others injured in violent attacks across the country, reported the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) in Johannesburg. In 2013, the Centre estimates that at least three attacks on foreigners take place weekly.
Understanding the context of xenophobic sentiment in the grand intersection of race and class in a South Africa mired by a complex social and economic history is difficult. As the largest economy on the continent, South Africa has attracted foreign Africans from as far afield as Nigeria, Ethiopia, the DR Congo and as close as neighbouring Botswana. They come as political refugees or economic migrants, with one goal: a better life. Following the end of apartheid in 1994, thousands of Chinese and South Asian foreign nationals have been living and conducting business across the country. Instead of South Africans thriving on its much-vaunted multicultural identity, foreigners have been painted in the popular imagination as criminals, job snatchers, and parasites arriving in throngs to eat at an economy battling to feed its own people.
New research released last month from the Southern African Migration Programme (SAMP) found that more than 50 percent of South Africans believed foreigners constituted a majority of the country’s population. In reality, foreign nationals amount to less than five percent, or 2.2 million people out of a population of around 50 million. The SAMP study, investigating the incidence of xenophobia in South Africa after the horrific attacks of 2008 which killed more than 60 people, also debunks the popular notion that xenophobia was a disease of the poor. That these attacks are taking place in already rough neighborhoods is worth remembering, Loren Landau, director of the African Centre of Migration and Society (ACMS) in Johannesburg, said. The study found that xenophobia is firmly embedded across all economic and social strata of South African society but with incidents of violence are more likely in impoverished areas where a riot can sometimes be the only way to the draw government attention.
Researchers suggest that the root of the problem lies with the government’s attitude to foreigners, especially foreign African nationals. Foreign nationals entering the country and trying to integrate into society narrate tales of daily strife with authorities. They report harassment at police stations, neglect at hospitals and abuse at immigration offices. Abuse is widespread, migrants said. Despite attracting the biggest number of asylum seekers in the world, The Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) found that South Africans receive foreigners with a jaundiced eye.
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