By Pamela Eapen:
It has never been more dangerous to be a foreigner in South Africa.
South Africa has been making international headlines for the ongoing horror of xenophobic attacks taking place in various parts of the country. Immigrants, both legal and illegal, have been the victims of violent and homicidal attacks by enraged locals, who largely believe that the immigrants are stealing jobs and resources from them. The government itself has not been forthcoming with punitive measures for the perpetrators of xenophobic attacks.
Recently, police conducted a raid on a church in Johannesburg that housed hundreds of refugees. It was described as a “crime-prevention clean-up” by the spokesperson of the police. Foreign nationals believe that the South African government is trying to chase them out, and they feel targeted to the point where they would rather return to the countries they escaped from rather than stay in a place that would have them beaten to death by an angry mob. Many have thus accused the government of exercising xenophobia on an official level.
This situation is not an unprecedented one – it has been simmering since the last surge of xenophobic attacks in 2008. Since then, immigration policies have been tightened as recently as 2014, following the upsurge of Zimbabweans flocking to South Africa in 2013. These policies specified that immigrants had to return to their respective countries to renew permits, which left thousands displaced. These immigrants, homeless and jobless, then found themselves mercilessly persecuted by South Africans who wanted them to go back to their countries.
The South African government has been making life difficult for immigrants in other ways as well. There is a disturbing ambiguity in the statements of President Jacob Zuma regarding xenophobia. The opinions he has expressed so far tell us that he believes that the attacks are troubling, and yet that the process of “people taking other people’s jobs” is the one that needs to be stopped. He has urged people to treat “legal” immigrants with acceptance and tolerance, as though illegal ones were not deserving of the same attitude. The government’s stance is that the attacks are not xenophobic, but instead criminal – as though the two are mutually exclusive. The situation is not likely to improve when the authorities remain officially in denial of the calamity at hand.
Xenophobia is a deadly symptom of a diseased society – and the South Africa of today is rotting at the core. The largest underlying problem is one that is experienced by almost every country in the world – an unwillingness to accept that one’s fellow countrymen are capable of discrimination to the point of violence. Officials, authorities – people who have to decide to change things – would much rather believe that all these things are results of criminal behaviour rather than a tainted mindset they helped nurture with disinterest and apathy. South Africa has diseased itself – and it has chosen to remain in blissful denial of that fact.