Our brothers and sisters who are resident in South Africa have, for eight years now, lived in fear of xenophobic attacks.
It indeed has been a tough existence for them, knowing that they can be burnt alive any time by their own neighbours for no reason other than that they are simply Zimbabwean, Mozambican, Nigerian, Swazi or Basotho.
Xenophobic violence in South Africa first grabbed worldwide attention, and condemnation, in 2008 when as many as 60 people were killed, mainly foreigners, and 50 000 were forced to flee their homes with knobkerrie-wielding militants in pursuit. It flared up again in 2015. Then up to 10 foreigners were killed and hundreds were displaced.
Images of the barbarism were published in the media around the globe at that time, but two appear to be the most enduring. One of them is a burning immigrant man, trying to crawl in a street strewn with rocks that his attackers had hurled at him before they set him alight. Another one shows a South African hoodlum moments before driving a knife into Mozambican, Emmanuel Sithole’s body. He later died a most painful death.
In recent weeks militants have been wreaking havoc once again, targeting foreigners whom they accuse of depriving them of everything, including jobs, girlfriends and residential accommodation. Reports say the South Africans also accuse foreigners of committing crimes such as drug peddling and prostitution. At least 10 houses allegedly being used for drug dealing and prostitution were set ablaze in Rosettenville, Johannesburg.
We condemn this senseless violence and appeal to our neighbours to stop it. We call on law enforcement authorities in that country to work harder to stop it.
The perpetrators can come up with a thousand reasons to justify violence but nothing, absolutely nothing justifies violence. They cannot pretend to be fighting crime by committing crime against the perceived criminals and escape blame for being criminals themselves.
Any law-abiding citizen, whether they are South African, American, Zimbabwean or whosoever will not behave the way some of our neighbours have taken to doing in recent years. Anyone who respects the law will not injure, kill or commit arson and still think they are doing a good job fighting crime. None of them would, even after driving all foreigners out of their country, show up at any company seeking a job. They would rather continue with the career as criminals, not tied to one formal job they accuse foreigners of monopolising.
None of the perpetrators are in charge of their minds when they burn fellow Africans alive, loot shops and so on. Chances are that they would be high on drugs that they source among themselves, not from foreigners, for such brazen, crass violence can only be perpetuated by someone after they smoke something.
What we are trying to say is that the people who are targeting foreigners in South Africa are criminals themselves who are just doing it for fun. Genuine grievances might exist, but you don’t channel frustrations in that way.
We are encouraged by the responsible manner in which President Jacob Zuma’s government has been handling the latest flare-up even as the opposition in his country is actually stoking the flames as Democratic Alliance’s Herman Mashaba did a few weeks ago.
President Zuma has rightly indicated that most South Africans are not xenophobic, only a few are.
Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba, speaking at a church in Pretoria on Sunday, restated that position.
“We know that this has been a week of anguish and pain, of fear and intimidation to all of us as we witnessed some among us seek to act in ways that diminish our humanity as a whole,” said the minister. “We have been hurt by the fear we saw in the eyes and voices of many fellow Africans who feared for their lives. The vast majority of South Africans are not xenophobic, and the vast majority of immigrants are law-abiding, religious people who seek only what is best for their children and families, for their fellow brethren, and for their countries both of origin and abode.”
Minister Gigaba said the South African government would fight against crime of all shades whether it is black crime, white crime or immigrant crime.
That is a strong message that should continue being backed by robust enforcement by the security sector in South Africa.
In saying this, we are not attempting to declare that every foreigner in South Africa lives a crime-free life. Indeed some might be criminals, but not all immigrants are criminals just as much as not all South Africans are xenophobic. Those non-citizens who commit crime must be lawfully arrested, tried before the courts and punished if convicted, not a situation where drunk vigilantes kidnap them from their houses, try them on the street and lynch them simply because they are immigrants.
Community leaders in that country also need to instill a sense of responsible behaviour in those who might be tempted to engage in crime. The government also has to play an educative role, over and above mere policing so that criminal activity targeting foreigners is minimised.