Inaction on xenophobia putting national security at risk

Islamic extremism also danger in SA

While South Africa stands accused of not doing enough to protect foreign nationals against xenophobic attacks, threats to national security due to the situation are emerging.

In its 2014/2015 annual report released last week Amnesty International (AI) states that inaction of government to protect people in South Africa led to the looting and destruction of many small businesses and homes of refugees and foreigners.

The NGO also points out that since the spate of xenophobic attacks on foreigners, mostly Somali shop owners in 2008, there has not been a single conviction of a South African involved in these attacks on and looting of shops.

The report notes that during “… the first four months of the year (2014) incidents in seven provinces led to the displacement of over 1,600 people. In June, sustained attacks in the Mamelodi area near Pretoria and the slow response of the police led to the looting or destruction of some 76 Somali-owned shops, large-scale displacements, the death of one refugee and injuries to 10 others.

 According to the report there was “continuing concern at the failure of the government to protect the life and physical integrity of refugees and others in need of international protection”.

Uneven hand

Mary Raynier, AI’s local researcher said the lack of consequences was proof that the government was not committed to protecting foreigners.

There have also been accusations from various sources of police collusion with the perpetrators of the violence and looting.

Analyst Nic Boraine recently wrote that immigrant communities do well in the informal retail sector and were despised by domestic competitors and are ‘soft’ targets for criminals and opportunistic mobs.

He said foreigners were seldom afforded adequate police protection from officers who often share the hostile community sentiment on the ‘successful’ outsiders.

Events last week in Doornkop, Soweto, seem to lend credence to the notion that locals and foreign nationals are not dealt with even-handedly by the police during incidents of violence and looting.

On Thursday, a foreign shop owner was seriously injured after he had paraffin poured on him and was set alight. A group of people who had been going around Doornkop telling foreigners to leave were allegedly behind the attack. No arrests had been made.

In a separate incident in the same area however, police arrested four foreigners when one of them fired a shot in the air as a group of locals tried to loot their shop.  

Slow government response

Looting of foreign-owned shops in several parts of Gauteng began when 14-year-old Siphiwe Mahori was shot dead on 19 January while he was allegedly part of a group who tried to rob a shop kept by Somali national Alodixashi Sheik Yusuf, in Snake Park, Soweto.

Since then unrest spread from Soweto to Kagiso on the West Rand, Sebokeng in the Vaal, Eden Park in Ekurhuleni, and Alexandra, Johannesburg. Looting and attacks on foreigners have also occurred at the Marikana informal settlement, Philippi, near Cape Town, Thembelihle informal settlement in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg and in some villages outside Modjadjiskloof in Limpopo.

After the 19 January incident the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA) aired concern about the lack of political response to the attacks on foreigners in Soweto Township and surrounding areas.

It further called “for urgent intervention from the Presidency, the Ministry of Police, the African National Congress (ANC) and leaders of other political parties to call on communities to desist from continuing with the rampant behaviour”.

The organisation African Diaspora Forum also said it was “deeply worried about the current course of violence across the country and the lack of effective response from the government to deal with xenophobia”.

During his State of the Nation Address (SONA), President Jacob Zuma, almost in passing said the violence was tragic and unacceptable, adding the rider that it is also a reminder to support local businesses and ensure criminals don't exploit local frustrations.

In his State of the Province Address on Monday last week, three days before the torching of the shopkeeper at Doornkop, Gauteng’s Premier David Makhura in his State of the Province Address expressed his concern about attacks on foreign-owned stores and said South Africa should embrace the migrants, but then added his own rider that the migrants “should adhere to the law”.

It was only on the day of the torching incident that there came some indication of a possible initiative by government to try and come to grips with the growing problem of xenophobic violence – not from the ranks of the government’s security cluster, but from the Minister of Small Business Development Lindiwe Zulu.

In a low-key statement issued on her department’s behalf by the Government News Agency it is stated that she “ has established a Task Team to look at the underlying causes of the problem” and to advise her on what needs to be done. “Consistent with our view that only a multi-sectoral response can deliver a lasting solution, the Task Team is constituted by all relevant government departments and institutions. The team is making a lot of progress and the Minister will brief the public at an appropriate time.”

National security

It can only be hoped that the minister’s announcement of the “task team” to “advise” is not too little too late.

Citizens from especially Somalia and also Ethiopia are most often the targets of these xenophobic attacks. From the tranche of documents leaked from the State Security Agency (SAA) to the Al Jazeera television network emerges a picture of how this situation can act as a trigger for attacks by Islamic militants on South African soil.

Among the documents thus far released is one that contains a request from Britain’s MI6 to the SSA to provide it with information about the ownership of several South African cell phone numbers called from a Somali cell phone used by a particular individual said to have been involved in al-Qaeda and associated with activists who were involved in an insurgency in Mogadishu in 2007 and 2008.

This alone should convince South African authorities that the community persecutions of foreign nationals during these xenophobic attacks might have serious national security implications. To simply treat it as a ‘small business’ issue is not only inadequate and inappropriate, but could also be dangerous.

by Piet Coetzer

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