In South Africa, Human Rights Day is celebrated on 21 March. However, if incidents of xenophobic violence in the country are anything to go by, the country still has a long way to go where civil liberties are concerned.
In May 2008, a spate of xenophobic attacks took place throughout the country, leaving 62 people dead, hundreds injured and thousands displaced. Authorities promised to ensure that such incidents would never again take place, but sadly little has changed since then. Civil society organisations have cautioned the ANC government to address the causes and symptoms of xenophobia on a sustainable basis, but mostly such warnings have not been heeded.
On the eve of the South African national and provincial elections, a daily average of four to five violent protest actions against authorities’ failure to deliver basic services are taking place. These protests regularly spill over into xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals and the looting of foreign-owned businesses. Authorities underplay these occurrences by labelling them as crime incidents, rather than xenophobic attacks.
According to Gift Nhidza, originally from Zimbabwe, most foreign nationals do not feel safe in South Africa, also because of this playing down of attacks against them. In his experience, asylum seekers, migrants and refugees are the targets of both communities and authorities.
Locals often blame foreigners for all of their political and economic problems, Nhidza says. His opinion is supported by the civil initiative Anti-Xenophobia Action South Africa (AXASA) that found intense competition for employment, commodities and housing to be some of the main causes of the violence in 2008. AXASA also identifies South African exceptionalism, a lack of identification with or understanding of the South African Constitution and law, mob violence incited by individuals with personal political or business interests, and a lack of positive leadership in transitory communities as additional factors contributing to the problem.
Both AXASA and the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA) voice concerns about the authorities’ failure to fulfil their functions and duties towards targets of xenophobia.
The Department of Home Affairs contributes to the woes of refugees by closing Refugee Reception Offices and creating huge application backlogs, leaving applicants vulnerable without the necessary documents. Desperate applicants sometimes resort to bribery – CoRMSA states that corruption is prevalent in the documentation process.
In Johannesburg, refugees report that they usually carry R600 ($56 or £34) on their person as a protection fee to prevent them from being arrested by the police. The indiscriminate arrest of people in this city was highlighted in December 2013 when Douglas Mboweni, son of the former South African Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni, was arrested for not producing an identity document at a roadblock. The arresting officer allegedly told him: “You’re a foreigner here, and as you don’t have a passport, we’re going to deport you.”
Even worse have been incidents of police brutality against foreign nationals. In March 2013, Mozambican Mido Macia died after being dragged behind a police vehicle near Johannesburg. Nine officers are standing trial for his killing. Despite a huge public outcry at the time, in March 2014 a similar incident came to light when a video surfaced on social media sites, showing a Nigerian national being brutally attacked by uniformed police in Cape Town. The officers involved are being charged with assault.
The recurrence of such incidents and the accompanying levels of violence are cause for concern. As a result, organisations like AXASA, CoRMSA and the Refugees and Migrants Platform appeal for the education of South Africans in general and South African civil servants in particular regarding human rights. As Gift Nhidza states: “People have to be taught that human rights does not end with one person, but applies to all.”
As long as authorities and civilians close their eyes while the human rights of any community in South Africa are being violated, 21 March offers little cause for celebration.