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Monday, May 25, is “Africa Day,” and Sonke urges the South African government to take urgent steps to repair relations with other countries in Africa, and to embrace African unity, amidst serious xenophobic violence and government crackdowns targeting African and Asian migrants in South Africa.
Africa Day is the commemoration of the 1963 founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now known as the African Union (AU), and is a day that people around the world celebrate African culture and African unity.
In fact, at the 50th anniversary of the OAU two years ago, President Zuma said, “The fathers of Pan Africanism held a vision of a united, economically and politically emancipated continent at peace with itself and the world. This was a profound vision of a united Africa, totally emancipated from the bondage of colonialism and imperialism.”1
But the concepts of African unity and an Africa at peace with itself have been severely undermined in South Africa by xenophobic and Afrophobic violence and rhetoric, the latest outbreak which came on the heels of irresponsible and discriminatory comments by Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, against foreign nationals in South Africa.
Following Zwelithini’s incendiary remarks, and the violence that ensued which resulted in a number of foreign nationals’ deaths, citizens and officials in other African countries have responded strongly, calling for boycotts of South African goods and diplomatic reprisals. Some violent activity against South Africans has also caused South African businesses to suspend operations in neighbouring countries, and to evacuate employees back to South Africa.2
In response, Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa announced the inaugural celebration of “Africa Month” during the month of May, with this year’s theme: “We are Africa – Opening the doors of learning and culture to promote peace and friendship from Cape to Cairo.”
We acknowledge and support Minister Mthethwa’s response to xenophobia, both in terms of the launching of Africa Month as a way to promote African unity, and in terms of his comments challenging discrimination and calling for African unity and cooperation.
However, we draw attention to the mixed messages government has been sending about its commitment to African unity as it condemns xenophobia in one breath, and then blatantly stigmatises foreign nationals by introducing raids that target them, deploying the army, and opening deportation camps, serving only to deepen wrong and dangerous ideas that foreign nationals are criminals and deserve to be sent back to their countries.
“How can we mitigate xenophobia by a government-sponsored campaign that suggests a link between migrancy and crime and criminality?,” says Sonke’s Policy Development and Advocacy Specialist, Marlise Richter, “South Africa can choose to either repair relations with the rest of Africa, or to risk further isolation as well as instability nationally.”
In fact, this week, Zimbabwe’s information minister warned South Africa that it needed to take a sterner stance on xenophobia or it risks “sow[ing] the seeds of genocide.” 3
“The government should focus attention on building social cohesion and protecting foreign nationals, but instead it has responded to xenophobic violence conducted by citizens, with an institutionalised xenophobia conducted by the army and the police,” says Sonke’s Communications Manager, Czerina Patel, “Operation Fiela stigmatises non South Africans and exacerbates the wrong idea that foreign migrants, who make up a small percentage of our population, are to blame for government's massive failures around education, job creation and service delivery. The government is failing to address the real structural issues of poverty in South Africa, and putting all migrants, documented and undocumented, at risk of violence and police and military corruption.”
Sonke’s staff working in local communities have heard from documented migrant shop-owners, that their goods and cash are being confiscated by the police and military forces who are implementing the raids, without even receipts being given when cash is confiscated. We demand that the government investigate the many complaints of police and/or army harassment, corruption and blatant xenophobia that have surfaced since Operation Fiela began.4
The African Union and the United Nations must investigate the conditions at the Lindela Repatriation Centre and other locations where foreign nationals are being detained, as well as camps where displaced migrants are staying, to ensure that international laws are being followed and that the rights of migrants, both those with and without papers, are protected, including refugees and asylum-seekers. We also call on the South African government to ensure that it follows due process as it attempts to identify foreign nationals that are in South Africa without the requisite documentation, and remind it of the foundation of equality enshrined in our Constitution and the principle of diversity, expressed in the Constitution’s preamble: “We, the people of South Africa… believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity...."
We strongly condemn the unplanned short-term approach the South African government is taking by conducting raids that undermine constitutional and human rights, and encourage it to instead do the thoughtful, long-term work to promote democracy and economic growth throughout Africa. South Africa should seek to strengthen democracy in neighbouring countries, not undermine it as has happened with Zimbabwe.5 When democracy collapses in neighbouring countries, where do we expect people seeking freedom to go?
We call on President Zuma and the South African government to work to reduce corruption, strengthen provision of service delivery and job creation, and to stop stigmatising foreign nationals through Operation Fiela and other processes that target non South Africans. We remind President Zuma of the “profound vision of a united Africa,” he espoused two years ago.
Issued by Sonke Gender Justice