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Covid-19 Deepening Anti-foreigner Threats in South Africa

As the pandemic has reached almost every corner of the globe, so too have the fear, distrust and hate that have followed in its shadow. Unfortunately, the gross displays of xenophobia and racism that have emerged are nothing new.

Xenophobia is always bubbling under the surface of the South African society, one of the world’s most unequal. South Africa suffers a sporadic outbreak of anti-migrant sentiment during coronavirus.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) noted that the tensions were not limited to, health stigmatisation but also linked to increasing economic pressures in refugee-hosting areas amid the impacts of COVID-19 restrictions.

Mixture of denialism and displacement

Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who have mostly been left out of the government’s official response to the food crisis are going hungry, the government’s insists that applicants for food aid need ID numbers and that citizens are prioritised around South Africa.

For many African and Asian foreigners in South Africa, harassment and violent attacks are a daily reality. A new Human Rights Watch report, “They Have Robbed Me of My Life”, found that, despite the launch in March last year of the National Action Plan to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, little is changing for these families. With politicians denying the xenophobic nature of attacks and even stoking the fires by pandering to populist sentiments, the cycle of violence continues.

Meanwhile, orchestrates and perpetrators of violence are rarely prosecuted. Government has failed to solve local problems so it’s easier to allow people to think it’s the immigrant’s fault. Shifting the responsibility for poverty and squalor somewhere else while being somewhat surprised when this turns bloody and violent.

Non-South Africans are also being accused of stealing jobs and women, depleting the country’s basic services, spreading diseases and running crime syndicates and waves of violent attacks time and again. Hundreds have been injured and displaced; dozens have died. In a country where violent crime is an ever-present threat, unemployment is rampant, and inequality levels are among the highest in the world, refugees and migrants has been made the scapegoats for the nation’s ills and government’s failure to deliver.

The country has brought virtually no one to justice for past outbreaks of xenophobic violence, including in Durban in April 2015, when thousands of foreign nationals were displaced, and attacks on foreigners in 2008, which resulted in the deaths of more than 60 people across the country. As at 31 December 2018, Xenowatch recorded 529 xenophobic violence incidents that resulted in 309 deaths; 901 physical assaults, 2193 shops looted and over 100,000 people displaced.

South Africa’s National Action Plan defines xenophobia as an attitudinal orientation of hostility against non-nationals in a given population, but it seems to have had very little impact on the lives of Asian and African foreigners living in the country.

Law enforcement officials have operated in discriminatory and abusive ways against non-nationals, Human Rights Watch found. Raids to crack down on counterfeit goods have targeted foreign-run businesses. During the raids, police have shot rubber bullets into crowds of people, then ransacked and destroyed foreigners’ shops. In coordination with the Department of Home Affairs, the police have conducted abusive documentation raids in areas known to have many non-nationals.

Category of Victimization Total in 2019. [Source: Xenowatch]

Jan – Sept: J – S
Sept 2019 alone: S
Total number of incidents: T
Persons Killed: PK
Displacement: D
Physical assaults: PA
Shops looted: SL

Xenophobic violence incidents per province: January – September 2019 [Source: Xenowatch]

Gauteng: G
Western Cape: WC
KwaZulu Natal: KN
Limpopo: L
Eastern Cape: EC
Mpumalanga: M
North West: NW
Free State: FS
Northern: N
Total: T

The police have detained people arrested for allegedly lacking documentation in police station cells and deportation centers, in some cases denying them court hearings or not bringing them before a judge in the required time period. Officials have frequently claimed to have lost or misplaced the arrested people’s documents or other possession.

Internet xenophobia is on the rise

The pressures of Covid-19 were certain to re-up these never-dormant xenophobic sensibilities, but this time the rules are a little different. In this difficult situation, there has been an alarming escalation of an increasingly crude nativist and xenophobic discourse. Misconceptions appear to also be fuelled by social media awash with fake news as videos alongside alarming messages claiming the violence will intensify unless all foreigners leave are running rampant. Much of it is driven by elites who are trying to exclude migrants from positions at universities and in corporations. And it is not just happening in WhatsApp groups, Twitter or online.

A report indicates that about 80 Twitter accounts are managed to artificially grow significant organic conversations targeting foreigners living in South Africa. Further, the number of tweets and signal boosting through the inner circle of key accounts suggests that these accounts likely have significant financial support.

Judging by the tone of their activity, they may be seeking to capitalise on the social and political difficulties that South Africa is currently experiencing through triggering populist and ultranationalist sentiments. The report notes that while many of the posts put out by the network are clearly xenophobic content, the account holders are careful not to cross the line into hate speech or inciting violence, keeping them safe from prosecution and preventing them from violating Twitter’s terms of use.

This impunity for xenophobic crimes remains a key challenge that needs to be urgently addressed. The South African government should publicly set out specific, concrete steps it is going to take to provide accountability. It should make clear what steps it is taking to guarantee the safety of non-nationals living in South Africa, particularly migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, and to protect their human rights and freedoms.




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