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South Africa: Migrants under Attack

AfricaFocus Bulletin
May 20, 2008 (080520)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Xenophobia is rife in South Africa. However, repression of immigrants, refugees and undocumented people goes beyond naked violence in poor communities. Earlier this year, police raided the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, beating up and arresting immigrants, mainly from Zimbabwe. The state systematically abuses the rights of immigrants: health workers deny treatment, home affairs officials demand bribes and police assault immigrants regularly." - Treatment Action Campaign

With violence increasing against immigrants in South Africa from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and other countries, South African President Thabo Mbeki has denounced the violence ( and the government has pledged to take action. But human rights groups say that actions do not yet match the verbal commitments.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains (1) a statement by South Africa's Treatment Action campaign, with reference to their extensive report on refugees in South Africa at:, (2) a summary by the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks on current events as well as background on the issue in previous years, and (3) a statement by the AIDS and Rights Alliance of Southern Africa, a coalition of groups in South Africa and other Southern African countries.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins and Africa Policy E-Journal issues on migration and human rights, both in Southern Africa and globally, see

For extensive background research on issues of migration in Southern Africa, see the website of the Southern Africa Migration Project (

Migration and the abuse of refugees and "illegal" migrants is an issue worldwide, not just in Southern Africa. For an extensive selection of policy papers and documentation, see For a brief analysis of Migration and Global Justice, written by AfricaFocus editor William Minter for the American Friends Service Committee, see A special Washington Post series exposed abuses of immigrants in detention in the United States, see

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Government must take decisive action to stop violence

19 May 2008

Issued by TAC National Council:
Treatment Action Campaign

The Treatment Action Campaign condemns the wave of xenophobic violence sweeping through communities in Gauteng. We call on Government to take action to halt the violence; to put in place a national strategy to protect the safety, health and well being of victims of xenophobic attacks and to take steps to prevent the violence from spreading further.

With the violence now having spread to almost a dozen communities in and around Johannesburg and threats of violence issued elsewhere across the country, including Cape Town, we demand more effective action from Government to deal with the crisis. Specifically we ask Government to:

  • Call together all political parties, President Mbeki and all political party leaders to visit sites of violence and to condemn it in the strongest terms.
  • Draft contingency plans, in consultation with relevant stakeholders, to manage the violence and its after-effects should it spread to other areas of the country. While we sincerely hope that the violence will be contained and halted in Gauteng, we urge every municipality to put in place coherent strategies for dealing with possible outbreaks of xenophobic violence.
  • Designate and make available places of sanctuary for victims of xenophobic attacks. The current system whereby victims take shelter at police stations is unsustainable; Government must identify sites where large numbers of people can be comfortably accommodated and easily protected.
  • Distribute emergency social assistance packages to all displaced persons.
  • Initiate a sustained media campaign condemning the violence. We ask for our political leaders to be more visible and to go on radio and television condemning the attacks.

TAC reluctantly calls for the deployment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to assist the police services in curbing the violence. Although this brings back terrible memories of the Apartheid era, the police services do not have the capacity to stop the violence without the support of the SANDF.

Ending violence and restoring dignity to refugees, immigrants and undocumented migrants is not only the task of government. All civil society organizations, charities, humanitarian bodies and NGOs must establish a unified and coordinated response to this national humanitarian emergency. TAC is working with the AIDS Law project, Lawyers for Human Rights, Legal Resources Centre and other organisations to address the crisis.

Equal Treatment Issue 25 (June 2008) has been published. This edition of ET focuses specifically on the needs of refugees in Souh Africa, you can download an electronic copy at:

Xenophobia is rife in South Africa. However, repression of immigrants, refugees and undocumented people goes beyond naked violence in poor communities. Earlier this year, police raided the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, beating up and arresting immigrants, mainly from Zimbabwe. The state systematically abuses the rights of immigrants: health workers deny treatment, home affairs officials demand bribes and police assault immigrants regularly. Then there are institutions like Lindela, where people are incarcerated in ghastly conditions before being deported despite not having committed any crime. This all goes on while the South African government refuses to recognise that people fleeing from Zimbabwe are refugees.

This issue of Equal Treatment contains a special report on the systematic abuse of the rights of immigrants. We hope that it galvanises South Africans to stand up against xenophobia, both by the state and in our communities.

Burning the Welcome Mat

UN Integrated Regional Information Networks

19 May 2008


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

The death toll in a wave of attacks targeting foreigners around South Africa's main city of Johannesburg has reportedly risen to 32, with an estimated 6,000 people seeking shelter in police stations, churches and community halls.

Police spokesperson Director Govindsamy Mariemuthoo was quoted in The Star newspaper as saying on Monday that the situation was calm in the townships of Alexandra, in northern Johannesburg, and Diepsloot, southwest of the city, where the attacks started last week.

However, the violence spread to Zandspruit, northwest of Johannesburg, and Tembisa, Primrose, Reiger Park and Thokoza, on the eastern perimeter of the city, as well as other working-class communities.

South African newspapers on Monday ran horrific images of people set alight by angry mobs who roamed townships during the weekend looking for foreigners and looting their shops and homes. In scenes reminiscent of anti-apartheid protest from the 1980s, the police fired teargas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.

In the Troyville area, just east of the central business district and historically a migrant enclave, shops were closed on Monday night and the usually busy streets were quiet. An estimated 2,000 people had taken refuge in the nearby Jeppe Street police station after violence at the weekend.

A police officer, who asked not to be named, told IRIN that he did not expect the violence to end anytime soon, and the station needed blankets and food to care for the foreign nationals - mainly Zimbabwean, Mozambican and Angolans - who were sheltering on the premises.

President Thabo Mbeki announced on Sunday that a panel had been set up to investigate the attacks, but the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), a constitutionally mandated watchdog, accused the government on Monday of failing to take the threat of xenophobia seriously.

SAHRC chief executive Tseliso Thipanyane was reported in newspapers as saying that the sudden outburst was the result of festering anger at poverty, a lack of resources, and the large influx of immigrants.

An estimated five million people from almost every country in Africa have migrated to South Africa; three million of these are thought to be Zimbabwean, but the Department of Home Affairs has no record of how many migrants might be undocumented.

They are perceived as taking jobs in an economy with an estimated unemployment rate of 40 percent, but in which there is also a serious skills shortage.

Not a new problem

The following chronology looks back at the problem of xenophobia since South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994.


  • The Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) threatens to take "physical action" if the government fails to respond to the perceived crisis of undocumented migrants in South Africa.
  • IFP leader and Minister of Home Affairs Mangosutho Buthelezi says in his first speech to parliament: "If we as South Africans are going to compete for scarce resources with millions of aliens who are pouring into South Africa, then we can bid goodbye to our Reconstruction and Development Programme."
  • In December gangs of South Africans try to evict perceived "illegals" from Alexandra township, blaming them for increased crime, sexual attacks and unemployment. The campaign, lasting several weeks, is known as "Buyelekhaya" (Go back home).


  • A report by the Southern African Bishops' Conference concludes: "There is no doubt that there is a very high level of xenophobia in our country ... One of the main problems is that a variety of people have been lumped together under the title of 'illegal immigrants', and the whole situation of demonising immigrants is feeding the xenophobia phenomenon."


  • Defence Minister Joe Modise links the issue of undocumented migration to increased crime in a newspaper interview.
  • In a speech to parliament, Home Affairs Minister Buthelezi claims "illegal aliens" cost South African taxpayers "billions of rands" each year.
  • A study co-authored by the Human Sciences Research Council and the Institute for Security Studies reports that 65 percent of South Africans support forced repatriation of undocumented migrants. White South Africans are found to be most hostile to migrants, with 93 percent expressing negative attitudes.
  • Local hawkers in central Johannesburg attack their foreign counterparts. The chairperson of the Inner Johannesburg Hawkers Committee is quoted as saying: "We are prepared to push them out of the city, come what may. My group is not prepared to let our government inherit a garbage city because of these leeches."
  • A Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) survey of migrants in Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe shows that very few would wish to settle in South Africa. A related study of migrant entrepreneurs in Johannesburg finds that these street traders create an average of three jobs per business.


  • Three non-South Africans are killed on a train travelling between Pretoria and Johannesburg in what is described as a xenophobic attack.
  • In December The Roll Back Xenophobia Campaign is launched by a partnership of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), the National Consortium on Refugee Affairs and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
  • The Department of Home Affairs reports that the majority of deportations are of Mozambicans (141,506) followed by Zimbabweans (28,548)


  • A report by the SAHRC notes that xenophobia underpins police action against foreigners. People are apprehended for being "too dark" or "walking like a black foreigner". Police also regularly destroy documents of black non-South Africans.


  • Sudanese refugee James Diop is seriously injured after being thrown from a train in Pretoria by a group of armed men. Kenyan Roy Ndeti and his room mate are shot in their home. Both incidents are described as xenophobic attacks.
  • In Operation Crackdown, a joint police and army sweep, over 7,000 people are arrested on suspicion of being illegal immigrants. In contrast, only 14 people are arrested for serious crimes.
  • A SAHRC report on the Lindela deportation centre, a holding facility for undocumented migrants, lists a series of abuses at the facility, including assault and the systematic denial of basic rights. The report notes that 20 percent of detainees claimed South African citizenship or that they were in the country legally.


  • According to the 2001 census, out of South Africa's population of 45 million, just under one million foreigners are legally resident in the country. However, the Department of Home Affairs estimates there are more than seven million undocumented migrants.


  • Protests erupt at Lindela over claims of beatings and inmate deaths, coinciding with hearings into xenophobia by SAHRC and parliament's portfolio committee on foreign affairs.


  • Cape Town's Somali community claim that 40 traders have been the victims of targeted killings between August and September.
  • Somali-owned businesses in the informal settlement of Diepsloot, outside Johannesburg, are repeatedly torched.


  • In March UNHCR notes its concern over the increase in the number of xenophobic attacks on Somalis. The Somali community claims 400 people have been killed in the past decade.
  • In May more than 20 people are arrested after shops belonging to Somalis and other foreign nationals are torched during anti-government protests in Khutsong township, a small mining town about 50km southwest of Johannesburg.
  • According to the International Organisation of Migration, 177,514 Zimbabweans deported from South Africa pass through their reception centre across the border in Beitbridge since its opening in May 2006.


  • In March human rights organisations condemn a spate of xenophobic attacks around Pretoria that leave at least four people dead and hundreds homeless.

Sources include: Human Rights Watch, SAMP, SAHRC, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

AIDS and Human Rights Groups Condemn Violence Against Migrants in South Africa

Gregg Gonsalves
AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa
Cape Town, South Africa

19 May 2008, Cape Town, South Africa---A surge of violent xenophobic attacks has swept through the South African province of Gauteng, particularly the greater Johannesburg area, in the past week, leaving at least 32 people dead, scores more injured, and thousands homeless Since Sunday 11 May, daily outbreaks of violence against foreigners have ravaged the city - including multiple incidents of sexual assault, beating, shooting, looting and burning of homes and businesses. The AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) and its partners across the SADC region strongly condemn this despicable violence, and are disturbed by the utterly inadequate response of the South African government to the volatile situation - one that independent media observers have likened to a war zone.

The humanitarian impact of the xenophobic attacks in Gauteng is devastating. It is estimated that up to 10,000 foreigners throughout the province are now destitute, either due to destruction of their homes or because they had to flee for safety, leaving all of their belongings behind. Hundreds of foreigners have sought shelter in police stations and many have been turned back to the streets to face brutal mobs. Centres for refugees run by non-governmental organizations are filled past capacity, with many experiencing shortages of essential medical supplies, food, clothing, blankets and sanitary services. Some paramedics sent to provide emergency care at the scenes of violence have been forced to retreat under attack.

Beyond the obvious humanitarian crisis, the situation also reveals a crisis of leadership in South Africa. High-level condemnation of these attacks is not being matched by the urgent action that is necessary to contain them. Actions taken to date by the South African government have proven woefully insufficient to stem the fierce wave of xenophobia and its devastating aftermath. Police, health and social service systems are ill-equipped to respond adequately to this emergency. A government panel mandated to 'look into' these attacks and a provincial task team were only established one week after the violence broke out; and so far have not articulated any emergency plan to improve the government's response to this crisis - including, most importantly, a plan to provide secure shelter for survivors of violence and potential victims. Without the guarantee of secure shelter for refugees remaining in South Africa, the current undertaking not to deport anyone in Gauteng is meaningless.

Meanwhile, civil society organizations are receiving information on planned attacks in other cities. On the night of Sunday 18 May, residents in Mitchell's Plain, a township in Cape Town, mobilized and began chanting slogans calling for an attack on foreigners, which was avoided by quick police intervention. However, no standing plan has been established to pre-empt outbreaks of xenophobic violence in other parts of the country.

The current events have been driven by the broader human rights crisis that has built up in South Africa around migrant issues. The very police and social services that are now mandated to deal with this outbreak of violence have themselves been implicated in xenophobic incidents several times in recent months. The failure of the South African government to respond strongly to widespread episodes of discrimination and violence against migrants and to confront the political and humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe - from which the majority of migrants in South Africa originate - has turned what should have been a haven for refugees fleeing the brutality of Mugabe's regime, into a nightmare.

ARASA and its partners call upon the South African government to urgently develop and implement an emergency national response to violence against foreigners. This must include:

  • Ensuring that civil authorities, particularly the police, have the capacity to respond immediately to all incidents of violence against migrants;
  • A guarantee that all survivors of violence, in fact, all migrants, receive basic services - including health care, food, sanitation services, clothing and secure shelter, regardless of their immigration status, as is due to them under the South African Constitution;
  • Fast-tracked prosecution of the perpetrators of xenophobic violence;
  • A mass education campaign designed to tackle xenophobia in communities and to ensure that non-citizens are aware of their rights and protections; and
  • The formation of task forces in each province that will coordinate swift action to pre-empt and if necessary to respond to outbreaks of xenophobic violence elsewhere in the country.

Furthermore, we call on the government to ensure that the panel responsible for investigating these attacks acts swiftly and transparently and that its mandate be expanded to include a more general investigation into the treatment of migrants in South Africa.

Moreover, we call on the African Union, SADC Secretariat, governments in the region, President Mbeki, and ANC President Zuma to respond responsibly to the crisis in Zimbabwe by doing everything in their power to ensure free and fair elections at the end of June and an end to political violence in the lead-up to and aftermath of the elections.

Finally, we expect all of our leaders to ensure that those seeking refuge in South Africa and other countries in the region are treated with the dignity and compassion that is their inalienable human right, regardless of citizenship or ethnicity.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

AfricaFocus Bulletin can be reached at Please write to this address to subscribe or unsubscribe to the bulletin, or to suggest material for inclusion. For more information about reposted material, please contact directly the original source mentioned. For a full archive and other resources, see

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