Tensions, Territory and Terror: Understanding Violence against Foreigners in South Africa
In May 2008, an outbreak of violence against foreign nationals in South Africa left 62 people dead, at least 670 wounded, dozens raped, more than 100,000 displaced, and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property looted, destroyed or appropriated by local residents. While the number of deaths did not stray far from monthly national averages, the extreme violence of the attacks and the deeply symbolic and performative nature of the killings, along with the ensuing lootings, destruction, and displacement will have significant long-term effects on a local, regional, national, and international scale. The swift spread of violence through townships and informal settlements across the country shocked the international community and sparked a range of explanations regarding the root and immediate causes, accounts of the violence, and strategies for interventions. Many of these explanations were focused on public opinion but did not explain why the attacks happened in some places and not in others. The recommendations for policy response were often impractical, self-serving, misguided or dangerous. They included border control (perpetuating the ‘us v. them' mentality that helps fuel such violence), public education, strengthening local leaders (shown to be counterproductive in the findings of the report reviewed by Loren Landau), and resettlement.
Recognizing the need for an objective, politically neutral account of the attacks, the International Organization for Migration commissioned a study by the Forced Migration Studies Programme (FMSP) at University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg. Loren Landau, Director of FMSP, highlighted the importance of conducting such a study, stressing the welfare and security of all South Africans, the country's critical role in regional development, the reliance of bordering countries on remittances, and the reflection of these issues on Africa's moral leadership. Based on five months of fieldwork, the study outlines the political economy of violence against outsiders and the immediate triggers and factors that helped translate xenophobic attitudes into violent attacks. A five-person research team, including three South Africans, conducted interviews with over 300 residents, non-nationals, key informants, and focus groups within seven sites, five of which had been affected by the violence.
Loren Landau highlighted key findings of the report:
- the attacks and violence did not happen in the poorest areas or areas with the most migrants
- violence was associated with localized struggles for control over urban space
- the violence is built on a long legacy of violence as a politico-symbolic tool in South Africa
- the violence is locally driven, but solutions will require national will and intervention
- there is a strong correlation between areas of violence and areas where residents do not vote, signifying an ambivalence towards formalized and legitimate methods of local governance
Landau addressed the question of "why outsiders?" In South Africa, there is a history of coding outsiders as threats. Foreigners are seen as competing for jobs, housing, and women. Violence has been the "vernacular of protest" in South Africa, and a changing political leadership in the country has left the internal situation vulnerable in the time of transition. External factors, such as the current crisis in Zimbabwe, help to push tolerance beyond a ‘tipping point'. All of these factors, as well as a history of impunity have legitimized acts of violence within communities.
In many of the areas affected by the violence, community leadership was up for grabs. Vying leaders used foreigners as scapegoats and took advantage of looting to to redistribute material goods to supporters. Local government proved unable or unwilling to exercise authority and apply the rule of law. The lack of police presence and history of impunity for xenophobic attacks, coupled with the support of local authorities for illegal practices, contributed to the escalating violence.
Landau highlighted the role of community leadership by comparing two sectors of Alexandra that responded to the spread of violence differently. Sector 5 (Setswetla) is worse off in terms of development and service delivery, more diverse in terms of language groups and population composition, has more foreigners, and, like Sector 2, suffers from the same deep-seated negative perceptions and attitudes towards foreigners. Yet, property of foreigners was not looted in Sector 5 and the foreigners' return was not resisted. In contrast to the leadership of Sector 5, community leaders in Sector 2 were actively involved in planning and carrying out the attacks on foreigners in Sector 2.
The report concludes that immediate interventions in response to the violence were weak. Police involvement was late and ineffective in stopping the violence. Rather than protecting the foreigners and their property, they focused on evacuating foreigners, further enabling the looting. Fearful that helping the unwanted foreigners would undermine their legitimacy, local authorities did little to prevent escalation.
The aftermath of the violence reveals tensions and unresolved challenges. About 100,000 foreigners remain displaced – where leaders were involved in the violence and property was looted, return is undesirable and impossible. In some communities, reintegration has been violently resisted. On the other hand, in areas where the violence did not enjoy the support of leaders and the general community (such as Tembisa, Masi, Dunoon, and Setswetla), some return has been possible.
Landau concluded with several recommendations for intervention:
1. recognize that the conflict is not about foreigners' rights or the difficulty of ‘pro-migrant' initiatives
2. develop interventions to promote accountability and counter impunity
3. remove leaders responsible for the violence
4. reform local government structures, incorporating mechanisms for conflict resolution
5. institute regular monitoring of tensions and early interventions
Steven McDonald, Consulting Program Manager of the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and Witney Schneidman, President of Schneidman & Associates International located in Washington DC, reflected on Landau's presentation based on their own extensive experiences in South Africa. McDonald stressed the point made by Landau that the types and locations of violence in the May attacks are similarly patterned to the violence perpetuated through the 1980s. He also drew from his own observations in South Africa last year to highlight the divisions in terms of local leadership and the competition between political groupings and how these divisions are reflected in the delivery of services. McDonald was supportive of the recommendations put forth by Landau but suggested further work be done to identify how conflict transformation work could be instituted, what the government's role would be, and how to get people to accept the need for it. Schneidman spoke in support of Landau's findings and expanded on McDonald's recommendations, pointing to Landau's distinction between good community leaders and bad local leaders and suggesting that work be done to help those good community leaders become local leaders. He also suggested that the practice of holding education, health, and infrastructure forums during the transition period be revisited by the government in order to get the local leadership in place to respond to the extensive issues recognized in the FMSP's report.