Johannesburg - The UN High Commissioner for Refugees on Sunday raised concern over the recent attacks on foreigners, and encouraged the government to continue to speak out.
“UNHCR is extremely concerned over the recent spate of violence in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape affecting foreigners, including refugees and asylum-seekers,” said the UNHCR spokeswoman in Pretoria, Tina Ghelli.
The UNHCR welcomed recent statements condemning the violence from Minister of Home Affairs Naledi Pandor, the ANC and Cosatu. Ghelli said it helped when the government said clearly that such violence would not be tolerated.
UNHCR’s regional representative for southern Africa, Clementine Nkweta-Salami, said: “While we appreciate the efforts made so far, UNHCR is calling on the government to do all it can to prevent any future incidents.”
There was violence and looting aimed at foreigners in Diepsloot in Gauteng and Booysen Park in Port Elizabeth last week.
“Since last week, in Gauteng, foreign-owned shops were attacked in several locations in Sebokeng, Evaton, Orange Farm and Lakeside townships. According to the information received, the attacks started off as service delivery protests that changed into attacks on foreign-owned shops,” said Ghelli.
The protests were more frequently targeting “business competition”.
She said Somalis, Ethiopians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis were frequently targets as they were more easily identifiable as foreigners.
UNHCR called on the government to do more work in communities to promote social cohesion, and welcomed efforts by the cities of Tshwane, Joburg and Cape Town.
While condemning violence, government officials have often avoided calling it xenophobia and instead emphasised its criminal nature.
“There might be some criminal elements involved, but clearly the people were targeted because they were foreigners,” said Ghelli.
“If there are criminal elements involved, they are taking advantage of the way people target foreigners to advance their own motives.”
Last week, Pandor said interventions supporting unity needed strengthening.
“I think we need to strengthen our interventions and move with speed to reach out to communities,” Pandor told Parliament in her budget speech. “The violence against vulnerable African foreigners is totally unacceptable and must be rejected by all peace-loving South Africans.”
She called for sustained campaigns to promote peaceful and diverse communities.
“In addition, we have in place stakeholder forums across the country, primarily to promote issues to do with citizenship. These forums can play a role in promoting harmony between citizen and foreigner and in shaping a more tolerant climate in our communities,” she said.
Cosatu and the ANC have also spoken out strongly against the violence.
On Friday, the ANC Youth League condemned the “disgusting xenophobic attacks” after the killing of a Somali shopkeeper in Port Elizabeth.
“This brutal act is nothing but an act of criminality and represents a regressive and backward mentality that perpetuates disunity, hatred and tribalism among Africans,” said the ANCYL.
On Thursday, the ANC condemned the violence “in the harshest possible terms, “regardless of what the cause of these violent protests may be” and said the party remained committed to unity and cohesion.
Cosatu more bluntly linked xenophobia to the attacks, but also called for better service delivery to calm frustrations.
“Cosatu is totally opposed to xenophobia… It sets worker against worker and the poor against the poor,” said the union federation.