South Africa stands on the precipice of “explosive violence”, senior independent human rights experts warned President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government as xenophobia, racism and hate speech are on the rise.
A seeming lack of accountability against these offences aimed at migrants, refugees, asylum seekers as well as citizens perceived as outsiders is the thrust of an investigation and report by respected human rights authorities on behalf of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council.
The experts, known as special rapporteurs, are the “special procedures” component of the Human Rights Council and independent from governments and organisations. Their report warns ongoing xenophobic mobilisation is broader and deeper and has become the central campaign strategy for some political parties in South Africa.
“Anti-migrant discourse from senior government officials fans the flames of violence and government actors failed to prevent further violence or hold perpetrators accountable,” rapporteurs Tendayi Achiumi, Morris Tidball-Binz and Felipe Morales said.
“Without urgent action from government to curb the scapegoating of migrants and refugees and widespread violence and intimidation against these groups, we are concerned the country is on the precipice of explosive violence,” the experts said.
They note xenophobia, especially against low income, African and south-east Asian migrants and refugees, has been a feature of South African politics for many years. In 2008, for example, xenophobic violence resulted in over 60 deaths and contributed to displacement of at least 100 000. Xenophobia is often explicitly racialised, targeting low-income black migrants and refugees and, in some cases, South African citizens accused of being “too black to be South African.”
In one highly publicised incident in April, a 43-year-old Zimbabwean national and father of four was killed in Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg, by a group going door to door demanding to see visas. The attackers drove the victim from where he was seeking refuge, beat him and set him on fire. Violence continues with allegations the Johannesburg, Yeoville, market burning in June 2022 was done by people targeting migrant shopkeepers.
The UN experts observed that discrimination against foreign nationals in South Africa is institutionalised both in government policy and broader South African society. This leads to violations of the right to life and physical integrity and rights to an adequate standard of living and the highest attainable standard of health, as well as elevated risks of arbitrary detention, torture and refoulement (forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution), they said.
The experts further expressed concern over reports that widespread corruption in the South African asylum and migration systems compound these problems.
“The cost in human dignity and lives, particularly in light of 30 years of xenophobic violence, remains widespread and deeply troubling,” the experts said.
“We are gravely concerned South Africa is not meeting its positive obligations to protect and promote human rights while preventing racial and xenophobic discrimination.
“At the same time, perpetrators enjoy widespread impunity for xenophobic rhetoric and violence, leading to a lack of accountability for serious human rights violations and racist and xenophobic political platforms flourish.”
The experts urged private and public stakeholders to honour their commitments to human rights and racial justice and take a firm stand against racist and xenophobic violence in South Africa.
- A Tell report