Jesuit Institute South Africa

The ongoing violence in Soweto against foreign persons and their businesses constitutes another episode in South Africa’s shameful history of xenophobia. The savagery demonstrated and the failure to put a stop to the current (and earlier) incidents of xenophobic violence is deeply disturbing and displays a failure of the State to put an end to such behavior both by the enforcement of the law and the education of citizens in respect of the rights of foreign nationals. This is a national disgrace.

But do these attacks constitute xenophobia? Clearly the Gauteng MEC for Public Safety does not think so. The SA Human Rights Commission, NEHAWU and other organizations beg to differ. Who is right? An attack on and the systematic looting of a shop that happens to be owned by a foreigner may not necessarily be xenophobic, but a systematic series of attacks on over eighty such shops and foreign-born persons cannot simply be explained away. Even if the current situation arose through the arrival of youth gangs in the affected areas, as the MEC claimed, the fact that such attacks appear to be coordinated and draw in a range of people makes this not so much acts of criminality as acts of political violence against a group. That’s xenophobia.

Xenophobia in South Africa is in direct contradiction of our nation’s professed belief in humanity or Ubuntu, and is a flagrant act of contempt for the culture of human rights central to our Constitution. The Bill of Rights does not discriminate between citizens and non-citizens. Section 7 of the Constitution stipulates that the Bill of Rights ‘enshrines the rights of all people in our country’.

The shelter of protection given by our Constitution extends to all of us because we are human beings, giving recognition to our inherent dignity and equality before God. This is in accord with Catholic Social Teaching on the dignity of the human person and with the central tenet of Ubuntu–‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’, a person is a person through other people.

Furthermore, welcome and hospitality are key concepts of the Christian faith. The Scriptures demand “You shall love the stranger as you were strangers in Egypt” (Deu 10:19). The Book of Leviticus (19:34) makes it even clearer: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself.”

During the apartheid era, the countries of Africa (and many other parts of the world) demonstrated this hospitality admirably to thousands of South African exiles, giving them a place of refuge – often putting themselves at risk of attack by the South African war machine. Our people were treated with warmth and generosity. They were not robbed, murdered, or attacked.

Furthermore, history teaches us that successful states welcome migrants, who bring with them skills, knowledge and a spirit of enterprise that builds up nations. All research points to the fact that immigration supports economies, generates jobs, and makes societies prosperous in the long run.

The current state of affairs in South Africa has left many young people feeling hopeless. Frustration mounts as Government fails to address the growing gap between the rich and the poor. There are many unresolved issues and a loss of hope in some townships where people attack foreigners because they are vulnerable. Such violence is symptomatic of the deep structural problems in South Africa and foreign nationals have become “scape goats”.

A State fails when it does not adequately protect all those living within its borders, when it does not enforce the law or educate citizenry in the proper way to deal with non-citizens. South Africa must put an end to the shameful phenomenon of xenophobia and xenophobic violence by systematic civic education and by facing the social, economic and political cocktail that leads to fear, hopelessness and anger.

The Jesuit Institute South Africa, with its partner organization Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), calls for:

•    All parties involved in these criminal acts to allow the law to take its course and to refrain from targeting vulnerable sectors of the community and victimizing foreigners in their community.
•    Dialogue between church leaders, community leaders, local businesses and foreigners.
•    Communicates to be wary of being used as pawns by some local business owners. Let us look for ways of working together and peaceful co-existence.
•    Government to embark upon systematic civic education on the positive contribution
•    Migrants make to South Africa–socially and economically.
For more information please contact:
Fr. Russell Pollitt, SJ
SJ Director Jesuit Institute South Africa
+27 82 737 2054

Fr. David Holdcroft, Director
Jesuit Refugee Service Southern Africa
+ 27 82 589 4729