South African Eye Witness Website releases damning documentary on the brutal, tragic xenophobia violence
London, Nov. 26, 2019 (AltAfrica)– A South African news website, Eye Witness, EWN has released a short documentary detailing the scale of brutal attacks, destruction and losses suffered by foreigners during the peak of xenophobia attack in South Africa
The documentary titled ” State of the Nation: Xenophobia in South Africa” showed graphic violence unleashed on African migrants and other foreign nationals with impunity and the failure of the government to arrest the situation .“For government to talk without action is just useless – we don’t need talk, we need action”
The Documentary And Text
“Someone was burned to death in front of me. I witnessed my good friend dying in hospital.”
Lionel Masinali (37) fled Zimbabwe in 2008 during political violence there, finding refuge in South Africa. But he’s since returned home after a horrific experience here the very same year he fled for his life. Now destitute and living as far away from crowds as possible, he vows to never return to South Africa, the country he dreamed would give him refuge but brought him torment and pain instead. He is one of scores of people attacked for being foreign in South Africa.
“I hate South Africa; I don’t think I will ever go back there.”
Eyewitness News multimedia journalist Thomas Holder was dispatched earlier in 2019 to cover xenophobic violence in the Johannesburg city centre, and can still remember the instruction from his editors.
“Thomas, we need you to go to the Johannesburg CBD to cover xenophobic attacks. They [South Africans] are burning people.”
Foreign nationals were being attacked and beaten, their shops looted. But on arriving in the area, Holder found no one was burnt. The information was based on an old video circulating on social media.
In South Africa, this is often a reality for foreign nationals – fake videos being sent around as a warning that they are not welcome, living in constant fear.
Sociology associate professor at the University of Johannesburg Pragna Rugunanan says a lack of access to employment was creating the biggest problems feeding xenophobia.
“Migrants from Africa are very entrepreneurial. They come into the country, set up businesses all over the place. They are willing to engage in long hours, hard work. In fact, they are contributing to the economy quite successfully, creating jobs for South Africans as well.”
In 2008, a wave of xenophobic violence swept through the country. It recurred in 2015, and again this year.
“I recall seeing the images coming out of Durban as foreign nationals and South Africans armed themselves as if for battle. Videos emerged of foreign nationals stranded from the rest of their group, being stoned by South Africans. They then armed themselves with knives and machetes, facing off against locals – journalists prepared their minds for a bloodbath,” says Holder.
Often these surges in violence result in one more tragic story of a migrant in search of sanctuary, beaten or butchered at the hands of their would-be caretakers. Travelling across the world in search of a better life, their efforts are rewarded with more persecution.
Each of the scenes over the years of xenophobic violence were the same: a looted foreign-owned spaza shop with destroyed stock. It all happens quickly, often while police, helplessly outnumbered by crowds of angry people, stand by and watch it unfold. Hours later, armed police might be found guarding the empty and destroyed premises destroyed.
“I want you to expose this,” an SAPS flying squad officer told Holder in 2015. “What can we do? We arrive on scene and we have no shotguns, no rubber bullets. We cannot just shoot live rounds into the crowd. I will be held for murder. But how am I supposed to control a crowd with no public order equipment?”
Another officer confided in Holder: “What do I do when I travel somewhere else in Africa? What do I say to people when they ask me about this violence? How should I explain it?”
Foreign nationals are often left puzzled by the hatred they experience from South Africans. They say they work hard to making a living and, in fact, also create jobs for locals.
“My company has 10 staff; they are all South Africans. It is just my business partner and I who are Nigerian,” said Jeppestown shop owner Ambrose Osunde.
He asked Holder: “What else do you guys want me to do? I create jobs for South Africans. We are not stealing jobs.”
This rings true across the board. Foreign nationals provide goods on credit, often for pensioners, something that many local shops do not provide. According to StatsSA, for every employed foreign national, whether self-employed or otherwise, two jobs for South Africans were created. So the narrative that foreigners are stealing South African jobs is quite false.
But it is not only during episodes such as these that migrant workers and refugees suffer at the hands of what the government classifies as “criminal elements”. Each time there is a service delivery protest in South Africa, a foreign-owned shop is looted. The community that the shop serves, and often generously so, is ransacked of everything. The owner is chased away, his life threatened and sometimes, especially when there is a xenophobic element, the shop is burnt down.
Holder recalled: “It’s a smell like no other: tyres, petrol, burned human flesh. The rancid and pungent odour remains with you for hours. The charred remains of body parts is something you seldom forget, etched into your mind. The pictures you take of these scenes seldom capture the reality.”
For the 2016 to 2021 period, StatsSA predicts there will be just more than one million international migrants moving to Gauteng. This translates into 47% of all international migrants in South Africa choosing the province as their preferred place of residence.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in South Africa, the country has more than 268,000 refugees and asylum seekers.
“Most of them come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Most of them fled persecution. They saw very harsh things in their country,” said Helene Caux, senior communications officer at UNHCR South Africa.
Holder, who regularly travels across the continent for work, said that when he tells people he is South African, he is met with the same response. “They look at me with a puzzled, curious, pleading look in their eyes. They don’t understand why the place they believe will be their freedom, and often their salvation, can be so horrific.”
And yet, government officials flinch away from the word xenophobia. During his speech at Zimbabwe’s former President Robert Mugabe’ state funeral, President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke about “…acts of violence, some which were directed at nationals from other African countries”. It would be embarrassing for South African politicians to be seen to be out of control. They can’t be seen to lead a country of intolerance – not after so many other African countries housed our exiled and fearful struggle leaders during apartheid, not after the legacy of Nelson Mandela.
The “criminal elements” term remains the official line relating to these xenophobia attacks.
In October 2019, some foreign nationals decided enough was enough. They camped outside the UNHCR in Pretoria and Cape Town, demanding to leave the country and to be sent somewhere they were accepted.
Yet, police opened fire with rubber bullets on the protesters in Cape Town on the same day in October that Finance Minister Tito Mboweni delivered his 2019 Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement just a kilometre or two away, dragging people on the tar road, separating screaming children from their parents. Would it have been so difficult to do this differently?
So can we really blame people like Masinali when he says: “I hate South Africa?”
Zweli Ndaba of the Sisonke People’s Forum thinks government is not helping South Africans when it comes to foreign nationals working in the country. According to his organisation, there’s much more government can do to protect citizens’ livelihoods.
“If the government [had] the mandate of taking care of South Africa, they would know they should close the gates. But nowadays, the gates are just widely opened,” said Ndaba.
A new wave of protests and violence against foreign nationals took place in August in the Johannesburg city centre.
Ndaba and other Sisonke members distributed a pamphlet shortly before the uprising, calling on foreigners to leave worker hostels they live in on the outskirts of Johannesburg earlier this year, and leading analysts to argue they sparked the violence that then took place.
Ndaba and his comrades flatly denied the charge, claiming years of canvassing action from government has led to nothing but disappointment.
“The pity about this South Africa of ours: when you are talking the truth, then you find yourself on the wrong side of the law,” Ndaba added.
The sobering view from economists, academics and lawyers was that the South African government’s lackadaisical approach towards migration was not only reinforcing dangerous xenophobic stereotypes, but costing the country economically.
After at least 10 deaths, millions of rands in projected damage to property, and billions estimated in lost economic productivity, members of the South African government have been adamant that xenophobia is not behind the unrest.
“People [are] looting and all that, and then use that as a xenophobia,” said police minister Bheki Cele at the scene of the September protests in Johannesburg.
“There is nothing that has sparked any form of this conflict between South Africans and foreign nationals – we are dealing with criminality,” he added.
But Professor Patrick Bond of the Wits school of Governance believes government is being disingenuous – about not only the source of the violent outbreaks but also the role they have played in the unfolding strife.
“All of them look inward and don’t look at the broader context. And it identifies as the source of economic pressure and tension as the immigrant who has been able to take advantage of prevailing circumstances.”
In spite of South Africa flirting with a prolonged recession and the World Bank projecting a paltry 0,7% in economic growth for 2019, the country is still seen as a haven for migrants from the African continent and further abroad that make it the country’s shores.
“It was always my wish to come to South Africa to make money here. But when I got here I found lots of problems here,” said Jayendra Singh from his cellphone repair shop in Hillbrow.
After over a decade in South Africa, the recent violence has left him rattled.
“I send money home every month to Bangladesh. To my mom, my young brother, my father, they have to wait for me and are suffering. What can I do? This is my responsibility, Singh said. “They said they don’t need foreigners here – we are supposed to go back home. I don’t really understand it. I am very stressed and I don’t know what to do.”
Exact immigration figures are debatable, with a 2011 government Census claiming 2,2 million foreign nationals were in South Africa, while the Migration Data Portal projected in 2017 the number to be at 4 million.
And while economic studies point to a general economic positive impact when it comes to immigration – from increased productivity and amplified innovation – recent spikes in unemployment and stagnant inequality have worsened already hardened attitudes.
Economists argue the growing tension between foreigners and locals presents an opportunity for the government to pursue progressive policies on immigration to fight unemployment and inequality.
“Jobs is a very scarce commodity in South Africa and people will do whatever they can to get jobs. For foreign nationals, that doesn’t only mean working for less than a South African, it could mean opening up a shop and employing South Africans” said chief economist at the Efficient Group Dawie Roodt,
“But unfortunately politicians don’t think that way and are fuelling the flames by saying quite often that it is foreigners taking our jobs away. So I can understand where people are coming from – they are looking for someone to blame.”
In spite of government pleas for foreign direct investment, current legislation dictates R5 million in foreign operating capital is required to be granted a South African business visa – over five times the amount needed for a similar visa in Singapore, New Zealand and Italy.
Casa Gebrahana owns Little Addis restaurant in the Johannesburg inner city Maboneng precinct. After 10 years in business, he is considering a move back to Ethiopia after the recent violence.
“The company employs four South Africans and we pay our taxes. We are never late – I deserve to be here – I really deserve to be here. But I am packing up my stuff and I am getting the hell out of here,” he said while dishing up injeera and shakle for some tourists.
For Gebrahana, government has done little to displace negative perceptions about migration and even less to nurture the positive opportunities immigrants could bring to the South African economy.
“I doubt it will change – it’s getting worse and worse by the year – let’s face it. It’s getting worse. I don’t think it will change – there is no hope.”
A Department of Home Affairs white paper on international migration claims close to 400,000 foreign nationals were deported by the South African government between 2012 and 2016.
Talking to Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, one gets the impression government feels this number is too low.
“The fact of the matter is that our borders are porous – we accept that. We can’t run away from that,” said the minister. “Under apartheid, the borders were managed with a different regime, which was concomitant with apartheid laws, like electric fences around the borders and with the army all lined up. And since they were removed nothing has replaced them, I think that’s where the problem is.”
In response to September’s violence, Motsoaledi says government is pressing ahead with a plan to create a dedicated border management agency to streamline policy and governance on migration and deportation.
“Our borders are managed by seven government departments. And between the seven government departments that have got to apply 58 Acts of Parliament. Each department has its own commander, its own ethos, its own working methods,” he said.
“There must be one authority under which they function to ensure there is uniformity in dealing with the issues.”
But lawyers argue this won’t be possible without other possible changes to existing law and possibly even the constitution.
“Our refugee and asylum seeker system is incredibly progressive. We don’t have an encampment system which means people that flee their country to South Africa have the right move freely and integrate into society. They have the right to study, they have the right to work – including informal work,” says Jessie Lawrence of Lawyers Human Rights.
“It’s incredibly dangerous where they do not acknowledge state failure. But rather allow people to shift blame to migrants. Creating the impression migrants are taking jobs and resources, which is simply incorrect.”
It’s also believed by some that merely tightening immigration controls will do nothing to address broad-based issues in neighboring states and the continent which could lead to migration into South Africa.
“There are so many people who have come from the region because of what South Africa did to the region during apartheid and after,” says Bond.
“The government’s failure to hold governments in Southern Africa and beyond accountable for their governance failures and violations of human rights, leads to people leaving their home countries in search of a better life – very often in South Africa.”