Cablegate: Xenophobia in South Africa: Root Causes Remain,

DE RUEHSA #1740/01 2391015
R 271015Z AUG 09



E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A. 08 PRETORIA 1544
B. 08 PRETORIA 1549
C. 08 PRETORIA 1563
D. 08 PRETORIA 2174
E. 08 PRETORIA 2014
F. 08 PRETORIA 2379


1. South African townships remain at risk of renewed
xenophobic violence, such as was seen in the mid-2008 mob
attacks on African migrants. Foreigners make easy scapegoats
for enduring grievances of poverty, unemployment, housing
shortages, and poor public services, and the SAG has not
taken deterrent steps to enforce the rule of law or provide
constructive outlets for conflict resolution. Politicians
have largely ducked the issue, and the SAG has dragged its
feet on a promised inquiry into the sources of violence and
prevention strategies. Civil society organizations and
church groups have launched small grass-roots initiatives of
community reconciliation, to fill the leadership vacuum left
by the government. End Summary.

Recap: Violence of May - June 2008

2. In mid-May 2008, xenophobic attacks against foreign
African migrants and ethnic minorities broke out in poor
squatter settlements near Johannesburg, then escalated into a
wave of violence in townships across the country. The
attacks were brutal and destructive. Some victims were
beaten to death, others stabbed, while their shacks and small
shops were looted and burned. An estimated 62 persons were
killed, 670 persons seriously injured, and as many as 80,000
migrants displaced. Although the SAG never published final
statistics, it estimated that as many as 70,000 foreigners
(mostly Mozambicans and Zimbabweans) fled South Africa.
Rioters vocally blamed immigrants for shortages of jobs and
housing, and for increases in crime. The events shocked
South Africans, affronting their post-1994 ethos as an
inclusive "rainbow nation," and led to wide public debate and
soul-searching over national values, social ills, and
historically ingrained habits of violence and intolerance
(refs A, B). This year, NGOs have publicly warned that the
SAG has made negligible effort to avert a repetition of last
year's horrors.

Rule of Law: Too Late, Too Little

3. Law enforcement's ineffectual actions during the attacks
will serve as scant deterrent in future. Field reports
indicated police officers were often late on the scene,
allegedly waiting for the worst to subside, or else
impotently observing at the sidelines. In the worst cases,
police who were residents of affected townships were rumored
to sympathize with their neighbors' violent ejection of
foreigners, or at least to feel powerless to oppose popular
mobs. One cop was famously captured in a news photo
gesturing a "thumbs up" to attackers. Despite lofty national
goals of inclusivity, front-line government workers are
commonly said to treat foreigners with resentment and
hostility. Many police view foreigners with suspicion, as
sources of crime and targets for exploitation and/or
deportation. Only the Army, deployed by President Mbeki
after nearly two weeks of unrest, had the capacity and
credibility to restore order.

4. Public prosecutors were slow, weak, and superficial in
Q4. Public prosecutors were slow, weak, and superficial in
punishing perpetrators, sending a message of impunity to
ringleaders. The Department of Justice recorded about 1,300
arrests, with a total of 1,446 charges brought against 421
persons in seven of the nine provinces (mainly in Western
Cape, Gauteng, and Kwa Zulu Natal). Although provinces
created special courts for these cases, months passed before

PRETORIA 00001740 002 OF 003

the first case went to trial. Wits University's Forced
Migration Studies Project (FMSP) reported that only 70
convictions had been achieved by year-end. Lawyers for Human
Rights (LHR)'s Jacob van Garderen adds that these convictions
are for relatively light offenses of public violence, none
for murder, and no jail sentences have been handed down.
Further, as FSMP's Dr. Loren Landau notes, those arrested
were mostly minor thugs, the visible direct agents of
attacks, while the planners remained at liberty. Field
research by the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) and the
FMSP (ref G) have implicated local ward politicians in
orchestrating attacks to gain political clout with residents.
FSMP found the identities of those responsible are common
knowledge in their communities, but not one has been accused.

SAG Reluctant -- to Admit, and to Assist

5. Politicians of the governing ANC party have adopted
various forms of denial over the xenophobic motivations of
the violence, and a promised official inquiry has yet to
begin. Slow to acknowledge the attacks, then President Mbeki
did not interrupt his travels to address them, even when they
were headline news at home and abroad. ANC leaders variously
characterized the attacks as isolated incidents of
criminality, denied their linkage to poverty and social
welfare grievances, and even fed speculation that a covert
right-wing "third force" was at work to tarnish the
government's image before 2009 elections. (This is despite
the ANC's identifying xenophobia as an impending national
threat at its party conference in December 2007.) Pressed by
refugee rights NGOs, the South African Human Rights
Commission (SAHRC) promised in late 2008 a thorough inquiry
into the violence, but to date no investigation has been
launched. Over the last year, the SAG has been quick to
attribute any isolated cases of violence against foreigners
to random criminality, unrelated to any xenophobic trend,
evidently wishing to bury the issue from public debate.

6. The SAG dragged its feet on offering humanitarian
assistance to foreign victims, acting only under heavy
pressure from the media and rights NGOs. Temporary shelters
for displaced foreigners were grudgingly provided by
provincial governments (ref C), explicitly on a short-term
and exceptional basis, and ultimately with a determined
effort to shut them down and disperse migrants (refs D, E).
The SAG's very liberal stance on immigration and its loosely
managed asylum process are normally a boon to migrants, who
enjoy freedom of movement and license to work here --
compared to other African countries where they would be
confined to camps. A reaction to apartheid restrictions, the
SAG's approach is one of integration of newcomers, with an
upside of minimal constraint and a downside of minimal
protection. Pressured by UNHCR (ref F), NGOs, and the public
to provide temporary refuges, provincial governments yielded
slightly on their initial end-August limit but then battled
in the courts to shut them by the end of September.

Community Outreach: A Missed Opportunity

7. The SAG has undertaken no proactive campaign of community
Q7. The SAG has undertaken no proactive campaign of community
outreach to address turmoil in the townships and create
non-violent channels of conflict resolution. Members of the
ANC's national executive committee visited hotspots to
encourage tolerance, but there was no concerted political
response beyond these brief walkabouts. Migrants have
successfully reintegrated in many areas, but on the basis of
individual efforts, unfostered by any new policies or
programs, and often under continued threat. As the country
whose Truth And Reconciliation Commission was a world model
of bridging deep national divides, South Africa has the
experience to lead initiatives in church groups and town
halls to mend rifts between locals and migrants. In March
2009, the International Organization for Migration (IOM)
launched the "One" campaign (funded by State/PRM) of youth
role models, township activism, and radio programs (with
popular station Metro FM), with messages of "tolerance, human
dignity and unity in diversity." This campaign, and others
underway by LHR and church groups, are civil society

PRETORIA 00001740 003 OF 003

undertakings attempting to fill the vacuum of SAG inaction.

Outlook: Violence Set to Recur

8. COMMENT. Most observers expect attacks against
foreigners will inevitably flare again, since their
underlying causes persist, and the SAG has not taken
deterrent steps. Migrants are easy scapegoats for the
frustrations of poverty, unemployment, housing shortages, and
poor public services -- widespread grievances which remain
unresolved. Recent protests against lack of service delivery
are an echo of similar 2008 demonstrations which preceded
attacks, giving some observers a worrying sense of deja vu.
Isolated incidents against foreigners (especially Somalis)
are a regular part of life in South Africa. Tensions are
most acute in the poorest shantytowns, where police control
is more tenuous, and where some cops may share gangs' worst
prejudices against non-nationals. The political economy
documented by ISS and Wits, of petty officials exploiting
xenophobic prejudices for personal or party gain, remains
intact. The root causes of township violence cut widely
across SAG ministries, yet no agency advocates for the rights
and protection of foreign migrants. Conditions are little
changed from last year and are ripe to re-erupt. One small
consolation is that the horrific experiences of 2008, coupled
with the SAG's heightened sensitivity to world opinion before
the 2010 World Cup, might prompt faster SAG responses the
next time around. End Comment.

© Scoop Media

World Headlines


UNFCCC: Simon Stiell Appointed New Executive Secretary
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has appointed Simon Stiell as the new Executive Secretary of the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat based in Bonn, Germany...

Binoy Kampmark: Europe Dries Up
Scenes and pictures have been circulating of broken earth, lacking moisture, cracked and yearning. But these are not from traditional drought-stricken parts of the planet, where the animal carcass assumes near totemic power... More>>

UN: Bachelet Alarmed By Number Of Palestinian Children Killed In Latest Escalation

UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet today expressed alarm at the high number of Palestinians, including children, killed and injured in the occupied Palestinian territory this year, including in intense hostilities between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza last weekend... More>>

Afghanistan: One Year On From Regime Change And Children Face An Unimaginable A Crisis
On the one-year anniversary of regime change in Afghanistan, a new World Vision report highlights the grave risk the country’s children face from starvation, forced child marriage, and child labour... More>>

Somalia: ‘We Cannot Wait For Famine To Be Declared; We Must Act Now’
Rising acute food insecurity in Somalia has caused more than 900,000 people to flee their homes in search of humanitarian assistance since January last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned... More>>

UN: American West Faces Water And Power Shortages Due To Climate Crisis
Two of the largest reservoirs in the United States are at dangerously low levels due to the climate crisis and overconsumption of water, which could affect water and electricity supply for millions in six western states and Mexico, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) warned on Tuesday... More>>