Individuals and Organisations who Foment Xenophobic Violence must be Prosecuted for Hate Crimes

Statement from Dr Mamphela Ramphele, Chairperson of the Archbishop Tutu IP Trust, and Mr Niclas Kjellstrom-Matseke, Chairperson of the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation

Populist politicians seeking to fuel and exploit anxieties that undocumented migrant workers are the cause of widespread poverty, unemployment and crime in South Africa must be prosecuted for inciting violence and hate speech.

The State has a tiny window of opportunity to demonstrate it is in control of the country, failing which it will have to accept full responsibility for another bloody episode of xenophobic-based violence and destruction

South Africa has struggled for more than a decade to contain intermittent outbreaks of violence targeting African migrants and refugees. But instead of taking the necessary steps to reform the country’s immigration policies, and the management thereof, the State has allowed the wounds to fester.

This laissez-faire approach, in an extended era of economic hardship, worsened by Covid, has created a lethal cocktail that opportunists are queuing up to exploit.

The language and actions of several South African political and vigilante leaders in the recent past is chillingly reminiscent of the tactics used to spread bigotry and hatred of the Tutsi in the build-up to what became known as the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

There, the Tutsi were labelled cockroaches. Here, African immigrants are termed makwerekwere(apparently an onomatopoeic word describing the unintelligible sound foreigners make when speaking their own languages).

Among other signals of rising tension in recent months, South Africans have witnessed politicians visiting restaurants to check the nationality of workers, conducting door-to-door checks in residential neighbourhoods, and a clear pattern of increasingly organised vigilantism.

This week, in his inaugural speech, a newly elected district mayor in the Western Cape described illegal immigrants as a “stain”, promised citizens’ arrests, and said the Central Karoo would become “an illegal immigrant-free zone”.

These developments are the antithesis of Ubuntu and a denial of the central teaching of Archbishop Tutu about the relationships between justice, equal rights and human inter-dependence.

At the same time as taking the necessary legal steps to stop hate speech and the incitement of violence, and arresting those who engage in vigilantism, the State must demonstrate leadership by:

  1. Committing itself to a set of realistic deadlines to reform the country’s immigration policies, and management thereof; and
  2. Convening a summit of government, labour and industry to discuss means to encourage large employers to prioritise local, above migrant, labour.

Few countries on earth have open border policies allowing for the undocumented flow of individuals in and out of their sovereign territory.

Considering, among other things, however, that most countries’ borders were relatively arbitrarily drawn to suit the whims of colonial powers, South Africa’s historic use of “external” labour (slavery, indentured and migrant), and the support of South African refugees and exiles by the country’s neighbours during the apartheid era, a nuanced and human approach to the country’s immigration policy is required.

Citizens of neighbouring countries fleeing conflict or socio-economic ruin should be entitled to apply to live and work in South Africa and, if granted permission, should be entitled to safety, dignity and respect.

Allowing migrant workers unhindered access to the country, and leaving them to compete for space, jobs and business with destitute and relatively unmotivated South Africans in the poorest of the poor communities, is not doing anybody any favors. It is unsafe, undignified and unsustainable.

So is the fact that labour brokers supply migrant labour to large employers – including, seasonally, to farmers – while much of South Africa’s so-called working class sits jobless in shacks on the edges of our towns.

If the State fails to act, the void in leadership will be filled (is already being filled) by hate-mongers and vigilantes.

Photo Credit: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach