South Africa

Rainbow nation turns xenophobic

In downtown Johannesburg, the director of the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa cautiously unlocks the door to his fifth-floor office.

He has good reason to be circumspect.

In November four men pounded on the door and forced their way past a receptionist, showing them pictures of the 43-year-old director, Thifulufheli Sinthumule, on their mobile phones.

They told him they were from anti-migrant organizations and unless he stopped advocating for migrant rights he’d face consequences.

They followed up with a post on X after the meeting, saying nonprofits that support migrants were “declaring a war” on South Africans. 

“If we as civil society organizations are now on the receiving end, you can imagine the life of an ordinary migrant,” Sinthumule said, pointing out the biometric recognition and cameras his organization has since installed.  

“I’m a South African, and I am receiving such attacks.”

The opportunity of work and a constitution that safeguards their rights has drawn migrants to the continent’s most developed economy from elsewhere in Africa, but also from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Now, with the ruling African National Congress facing the possibility of losing its majority for the first time in the May elections, they’re being scapegoated for government failings such as poor health care, high unemployment and rampant crime.

Just 4% of the 62 million population are foreign, according to state statistics.

While incidents peaked during widespread riots in 2008, the number of people displaced this year to date is already double that for all of 2023, according to the African Centre for Migration & Society.     

The ANC, brought to power with the support of African nations opposed to apartheid, has previously condemned xenophobic violence in which hundreds of migrants have been killed and tens of thousands made homeless. 

But having lost ground in 2021 municipal elections to rivals who want undocumented foreigners deported, the party has ratcheted up anti-migrant rhetoric.

It’s done little to discourage vigilante groups such as Operation Dudula, which means “to force out” in Zulu, that’ve attacked migrants and destroyed their property. 

While it’s not contesting the national election on May 29, Operation Dudula will field single-issue candidates in this year’s provincial voting in several provinces for the first time.

Last year, the government fought and lost a series of court cases as it tried to strip about 180,000 Zimbabweans who had been in the country legally since before 2009 of their right to stay.

In November, it proposed overhauling immigration laws, proposals which, if enacted, would see South Africa withdraw from international refugee treaties, repatriate foreigners and hold those crossing its borders in camps.

Currently migrants are allowed to live within communities while their applications to stay are processed.

The approaching election is causing Sinthumule concern. There will be “scapegoating and electioneering at the expense of migrants,” he said.


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