“Even Dogs Have Dignity”

25 May is Africa Day, the commemoration of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963. The Centre for Conflict Resolution marked this with a colloquium on xenophobic violence, a vortex of media attention, dismay and condemnation since King Goodwill Zwelithini is reported to have said that foreigners in South Africa should “pack their bags and leave”.

The last time that violent attacks in African migrants in South Africa caused a media storm was in May 2008, when about 100 000 people had to leave their homes, many seeing out the rest of the winter in internal displacement camps. It has been widely assumed that migrant and refugee communities have been for the most part left alone over the intervening seven years. But this has not been the case.

At the Centre for Conflict Resolution’s Cape Town colloquium Roni Amit summarized the African Centre for Migration and Society’s data, derived from the work of a range of NGOs as well as the South African Government’s statistical agency. 62 people were killed in the attacks and riots in the winter of 2008. Since then, 350 foreign nationals have been murdered, an average of four every month. There has been one prosecution.

There have been persistent warnings of danger ahead. For example, Khadija Patel wrote a perceptive analysis in May 2013, following attacks on foreign-owned stores in Diepsloot. Patel’s article anticipated the far wider outbreak of violence two years later. Despite this and similar intelligence, in has been claimed that the current crisis is spontaneous and could not have been anticipated. The raids now being carried out by the police and army – Operation Fiela – are part of an emerging official consensus that the underlying cause of xenophobic violence is criminal activity by illegal immigrants.

Epherem Meskele from Durban’s Ethiopian community, also speaking at the Cape Town colloquium, witnessed and experienced violent attacks months before Zwelithini’s contentious speech. He knew five fellow shopkeepers who were burned alive in their premises. And he reported that violence has continued despite its widespread condemnation. Shortly before the Cape Town symposium Meskele had been called to help a relative under attack. He found the police at the shop, but not prepared to intervene. Meskele summarises his and his fellow Ethiopians’ position: “even dogs have dignity”.

Meskele’s experience of being dehumanized – of being treated as “less than a dog” – chimes with Catherine Musuva’s research into the attitudes of officials regulating residence and asylum claims. Musava interviewed both migrants and officials at the City of Cape Town and at central government departments. She found recourse to procedures outside the law and the requirements of the Constitution, creating a hierarchy of respect for a person’s rights irrespective of their formal entitlements. Musava uses Giorgio Agamben’s concept of a “state of exception” to describe this shadow land; a place where migrants and asylum seekers must survive in a “condition of bare life”, and where violent attacks and theft are condoned.

Public perceptions of the extent of immigration are often wide of the mark. In the UK, for example, surveys by Ipsos-MORI indicate that most people currently believe that net migration is at 31%; the actual proportion is a third of this. And in 1978, when net migration to Britain was zero, 70% of those polled agreed with the statement that they were in danger of “being swamped” by other cultures. Similarly in South Africa. Media reports either over-state the numbers of foreign nationals in the country or else fail to report the statistical evidence.

Roni Amit summarizes the overall profile. Foreign nationals make up between 3% and 4% of the overall population in South Africa. This allows for undocumented migrants and includes all levels of skills, from all parts of the world. The unemployment level in South Africa is high and rising, at upwards of 25% depending on which measure is used. About 4% of those who are unemployed are not South African citizens. Foreign nationals are often portrayed as criminals, particularly in justification of Operation Fiela. There is currently no empirical evidence for this assertion; foreign nationals make up 4% of the prison population. Amit’s overall point is that unemployment and crime figures for foreign nationals are much the same as their representation in the population as a whole. Immigration in South Africa is a 4% issue. In comparison, the proportion of the population who are foreign nationals is 8% for Britain, 6% for France and 9% for Germany.

There are frequent incidents of discrimination based on race, ethnicity or nationality in Britain, France, Germany and many other countries. Sometimes these escalate; the urban riots across British cities in August 2011; riots in Paris last year. But in South Africa, the extent and intensity of person-on-person violence has been intense and visceral, caught in the now-iconic Sunday Times front-page photographs of a Mozambican being knifed to death in Johannesburg.

Amit argues that, rather than being spontaneous flare-ups ignited by intolerable influxes of foreigners and criminality, the reasons for attacks on migrants and refugees from other parts of Africa are to be found in local economic and political circumstances. These are the micro-politics of the local state; municipal administrations, schooling, service delivery and housing along with township retailing and the pricing of basic household needs.

One way of looking at this, Amit says, is that inward mobility may be a cause in itself, whoever is involved. She makes the point that the statistics for violence against foreign nationals need to be considered along with the extent of violence by South Africans against other South Africans; that inward mobility may be a local threat wherever the migrants are from.

South Africa’s economy was built on migrant labour from the apartheid homelands and neighbouring states, to the mines and into the cities. These structural factors continue to define key opportunities today, whether these are being sought or defended. For example, the University of Johannesburg’s interviews with miners following the Marikana killings of August 2012 show the tight and essential relationship between access to work and economic survival at a home many hours away. Life at the margins of an economy structured around the movement of people and the defence of established interests may be all the more subject to violence.

Amit argues that these threats are accentuated when local government is weak or perceived as illegitimate, and where local political interests see advantage in scapegoating foreigners. In these circumstances, she says, local communities feel justified in asserting their own rights and may do so violently. Here, Amit’s analysis aligns with Musuva’s use of Agamben’s political theory. In defending their interests at the margins of the economy local communities, like state officials, also create a “state of exception” in which foreigners are seen as living in “bare life” and as legitimate targets for expulsion, for machete attacks, or for burning alive.

People who have sought asylum and who have experienced these attacks often point to the contradiction with South Africa’s often-repeated claim to be an exemplar of democracy and human rights; disappointment captured in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s statement that xenophobic violence has reduced the rainbow nation to a grubby wreck. But representatives from migrant communities are careful to make the point that, while deploring the violence meted out to them in South Africa, conditions may be far worse at home.

At the CCR symposium Mohamed Osman, for the Somali Association of South Africa, described his own experiences of the last decade, from the xenophobic violence of 2008 through until this year. Somalis living in South Africa must, Osman says, be ready to move to other areas when local conditions become impossible. But Osman also makes the point that were he to be on an equivalent platform in Mogadishu he would likely be arrested, tortured and killed. While abhorring what is happening in South Africa, Osman also celebrates his comparative freedom.

The Centre for Conflict Resolution’s Africa Day symposium made it clear that there is no quick and clear solution for xenophobia, or for associated violence more generally. Roni Amit’s diagnosis is convincing, but the problems of governance and delivery at the municipal level are extensive and daunting. And disruption and violence continues to escalate at the origins of migrants’ journeys across Africa. The effects of endemic crises in Somalia and Ethiopia, and also in other sub-Saharan countries, travel to South Africa or north to the Mediterranean and the refugee crisis currently facing the European Union.

Because these continental-level problems are so difficult, Epherem Meskele’s repeated call for local integration strategies rings true. The everyday reality of Meskele and other Ethiopians living in Durban’s townships is to be treated as less than human by fellow residents. In the terms of Agamben’s political theory, this is to be in a “state of exception”, to be living “in bare life”. In Meskele’s terms, it is to be less regarded than a dog. Meskele wants programmes that inform and educate on both sides, which build in methods that can identify and attempt to resolve conflicts before they lead to a knifing, or to burning a shopkeeper alive in his shop.

Responses that centre on education and conflict resolution will not redress the primary economic and political causes of xenophobia and violence. But some of those living through this maelstrom believe that integration strategies can make a difference, and ask that their voices be heard.


Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town: Tackling the Scourge of Xenophobia in South Africa. Monday 25 May 2015.


Roni Amit, Senior Researcher, African Centre for Migration and Society, University of the Witwatersrand , Johannesburg

Epherem Meskele, Member of the Ethiopian Community, Durban

Catherine Musuva, Independent Researcher, Stellenbosch

Mohamed Osman, Western Cape Spokesperson, Somali Association of South Africa , Cape Town


African Centre for Migration and Society: http://www.migration.org.za/

Alexander, Peter, Thapelo Lekgowa and Botsang Mmope, 2013.   Marikana: A view from the mountain and a case to answer. Johannesburg, Jacana

Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, 17 April 2015: “Xenophobia reflects the state of South Africa’s callousness and poverty”. http://www.tutu.org.za/xenophobia-reflects-the-state-of-south-africas-callousness-and-poverty

Eurostat 2014: Migration and migrant population statistics. http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Migration_and_migrant_population_statistics

Ipsos-MORI 2014. “Perceptions and Reality: ten things we should know about attitudes to immigration in the UK”. https://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Publications/sri-perceptions-and-reality-immigration-report-summary-2013.pdf

Khadija Patel, 28 May 2013: “Analysis: The ugly truth behind SA’s xenophobic violence”. Daily Maverick http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2013-05-28-analysis-the-ugly-truth-behind-sas-xenophobic-violence/#.VWQKcJOqqko

Sunday Times 2015. “The brutal death of Emmanuel Sithole”. 19 April 2015. http://www.timeslive.co.za/local/2015/04/19/the-brutal-death-of-emmanuel-sithole1

Vourlias, Christopher 25 April 2015. “After xenophobic attacks, S. African government blasted for tardy response” Aljazeera: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/4/25/after-xenophobic-attacks-s-african-government-blasted-for-tardy-response.html

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