Press statement: LHR calls for strong political leadership as xenophobic violence rages on

Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) is disturbed and worried by the serious lack of strong and coherent leadership as xenophobic violence continues to spread across the country, reaching crisis point in Durban and displacing thousands of foreign nationals. This is eerily reminiscent of the 2008 attacks that resulted in the death of over 60 people. 

We are pleased that President Jacob Zuma has addressed the nation but are increasingly puzzled over his refusal to call his officials to order by demanding that they stop making inflammatory and hateful statements in public. A few days ago, Zuma’s son, Edward, echoed inaccurate and damaging assumptions in the media. This was not met with an adequate response from the President in Parliament and underlines concerns that xenophobia will flourish in an environment where the President fails to condemn it. Condemning the violence and then expressing sympathy “to some of the issues that have been raised by affected South African citizens” in the same breath is hardly an unequivocal stance.

We have seen how influential these political heavyweights are – for example, the recent ignition of xenophobic violence across Durban following Zulu King Zwelithini’s comments that foreigners “should go home”. Those in positions of power have a duty to make considered statements in public platforms and refrain from inflammatory comments.  South Africa has a very clear legal framework (including the Constitution) which prohibits hate speech and comments that incite violence. We believe The King’s comments amount to hate speech and we will be laying a formal complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission. LHR also laments the lost opportunities that public figures have when addressing the public to change mind-sets and send messages of integration, cohesion and understanding. Instead of using these opportunities for positive social change, public figures have all too often used their position of influence to make damaging comments.

We have grave reservations of the call for the establishment of refugee camps in response to the violence. This move would not be an appropriate response and would only serve to further alienate this already vulnerable population. The policy of encampment flies in the face of South Africa’s Constitution and Refugees Act that guarantee freedom of movement. Encampment also entrenches the perception of “otherness”, reminiscent of Apartheid’s segregation policies. Camps are inherently dangerous, dirty and expensive to the South African state. Those funds would be better spent on ensuring adequate services are provided to all community members, no matter where they were born. Camps also undermine refugees’ ability to sustain independent livelihoods and make them dependent on state or other resources which, apart from infringing on their dignity, serves only to enhance South Africans’ views of foreigners as burdensome on limited resources. Claims that South Africa is “flooded” by “illegal immigrants” are based on a lack of knowledge on South Africa’s refugee system. Many factors contribute to a person being undocumented and few of these are in their control. These include the tightening of immigration laws that increase administrative hurdles, severe corruption at refugee reception offices and the unlawful closure of reception offices without sufficient contingencies in place as well as the non-compliance of court orders by the Department of Home Affairs. It is also caused by an asylum system in crisis, plagued by poor decision-making, inefficiencies and severe backlogs.

We commend the police’s quick response to the violence that spilled over to the Durban city centre yesterday and ask that a dedicated and coherent prosecution strategy of perpetrators of the violence to create a strong deterrent and set the tone for future instances of xenophobia by breaking the culture of impunity. LHR doesn’t believe, however, that the use of the army is appropriate at the moment since a more resolution-oriented approach is preferred.

As police continue running battles in our communities, we call for a resolution on the following actions:

Short term
• Effective policing of violence and effective prosecution of perpetrators;
• Officials to cease making inflammatory statements in the media;
• Provision of social assistance to displaced people by the Department of Social Development.

Long term
• Addressing systemic and glaring deficiencies in the asylum system that prevents documentation solutions from being made available;
• A roll out of community integration plans and strategies;
• A roll out of education campaigns to increase citizens’ knowledge of the reasons for migration in the continent and to debunk myths about foreigners in South Africa;
• Implementation of the recommendations of the 2010 SAHRC report.

Xenophobia and criminality are not mutually exclusive but they both require an immediate and coordinated reaction from the state. The unnecessary loss of life and displacement of thousands of foreign nationals highlights the need for urgent and effective interventions. We believe that this violence could have been prevented had the recommendations of the SAHRC’s 2010 report been implemented by the various government departments and we reiterate the call for government to do so.

We do, however, echo Zuma’s call for restraint on social media. We have seen first-hand the damage that false SMSes have and hope that communities will refrain from circulating incorrect and misleading information.

It is important to point out that the majority of South Africans are not xenophobic and we are proud of their solidarity with those caught in the centre of the violence. We have heard numerous stories of South Africans coming to the aid of their African brothers.