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No easy way to end xenophobia in SA

Business Daily Live
Wednesday, November 14, 2012

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THE idea of an early warning system meant to prevent a repeat of the 2008 xenophobic attacks has proved to be an elusive proposition four years since it was first mooted.

The thinking was that the government and civil society were reactive in their approach to dealing with violence against foreign nationals and needed a way to identify and deal with potential threats before they happen. The logic was simple enough but proposed systems struggled to get off the ground, with activists citing a lack of resources and political will.

However, since mid-2010, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), together with the South African Police Service (SAPS) have devised an SMS system which allows people affected by violence to notify a central hub, which in turn alerts police.

Explaining why even this system has taken about two years to get off the ground, UNHCR spokeswoman Tina Ghelli, says: "In 2008, the focus was on the response to the attacks that happened in May. Thousands were displaced and the government, UNHCR, other UN agencies and the partners were focused on the aftermath and how to reintegrate those affected into the communities.

"There were discussions on prevention and early warning with SAPS and ad hoc responses throughout 2009, but the initiative was developed and fell into place by mid 2010."

While attacks on foreign nationals continue throughout the country, the UNHCR says the looting of shops has been minimised and violence prevented in many instances, thanks to the system.

"Through volunteers and outreach teams, we are able to provide information about potential attacks and then liaise with the police so that appropriate interventions can be made," says Ms Ghelli.

According to UNHCR statistics, 500 incidents were verified and referred to SAPS for intervention last year. As a result, the authorities were able to prevent death, injury and loss of property in half of the cases. Even then, the figures were not encouraging.

The agency found that the total number of killed people in xenophobic violence last year was 99. One hundred people were seriously injured, while the number of people temporarily displaced was about 1,000. The number of foreign-owned shops temporarily or permanently closed was 120. Gauteng, the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, and the Free State were the worst-affected provinces.

Activists, too, have praised the early warning system, saying it has at least given authorities the intelligence to deal with the violence as soon as it breaks. But it is just one cog in the wheel of a system that needs a much more holistic response, many say.

Sicel’mpilo Shange-Buthane, executive director for the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA), says the challenge would always be a mind-set change.

"For me, when I go to communities, I find it is to some extent about understanding the reasons why people migrate, their rights and responsibilities and country’s commitment to refugees or international phenomenon of migration.

"It is also about promoting these cohesive communities so even if I don’t know what brought you here as a refugee or migrant, it does not automatically give the right to attack you, kill you or take away from you."

Jean-Pierre Misago, a senior researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society, says the government needs to show more political will to deal with violence against foreigners.

"And the evidence is that we have seen a lot of violent acts happening again and in 2012 the numbers are on the increase. Whatever they say, whatever political pronouncements are made, nothing has been done and it is happening in the same places," Mr Misago says.

He says the government has to admit that there is a real problem and then pass legislation that outlaws such atrocities. "The people who organise violence are always there. It’s not done by the people vandalising the shops or brandishing the machetes on the street. There are people who sit down and prepare and organise," Mr Misago says.

"We have also noted a change in the type of xenophobia with increased threats on the livelihood of foreigners such as foreign-owned spaza shops being targeted for closure," says Ms Ghelli. But there is also hope, she points out.

"We have also seen increased responses from community members who defend, for example, the local shop owned by the Somali shopkeeper, as they see it is as beneficial to their community."

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