Fears of xenophobia-fuelled unrest have gripped the country following threats of massive violence against foreign nationals after the May 8 general elections.
The government is so concerned by the possible damage that these threats may do to the image of the country that International Relations and Cooperation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu on Saturday called for an urgent meeting with African ambassadors.
Some of the insidious, anonymous messages doing the rounds are warning against the employment of foreign nationals.
The government said it was concerned about the reported attacks on foreign nationals in KwaZulu-Natal, and urged law enforcement agencies to ensure that perpetrators of these violent acts were brought to book.
Earlier this week more than 150 foreigners living in an informal settlement in Clare Estate in Durban had to flee the area after they were attacked by a group of men.
On Saturday’s meeting with foreign envoys was called to discuss the current spate of violence targeting foreign nationals and their properties.
“The minister has expressed serious concern about the situation, and called on law-enforcement officers to deal with criminals and those damaging properties with the full might of the law,” international relations department spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya said in a statement on Saturday.
Unconfirmed social media reports also show a picture of a local bus being torched allegedly in Malawi in retaliation for the attacks on foreigners.
However, Executive Secretary of Africa Diaspora Forum Gabriel Hertis played down the recent attacks on foreign nationals in Durban, adding that the situation is under control “according to information at our disposal”.
He says messages circulating on social media that are not factually verified, are also not helping the situation.
“I cannot call it xenophobia, the government is doing quite well to go ahead and condemn the attacks, we saw the statement from the president saying attacking foreign nationals is demonising South Africans and it’s quite true. It's high time people began to see it as it is, not as a way of getting rid of foreigners but rather as denting the image of your country,” he said.
“There is something that we are learning and it goes both ways, we are learning that whenever there is an issue people need to meet and talk about it and find solutions, initially it was an issue that confronted foreign drivers and local drivers but now in the discussions we need to include those employers that are taking advantage of the situation in which foreign truck drivers are paid low salaries. He urged Home Affairs to document illegal immigrants saying no one wants to be in the country illegally, adding that a dialogue is needed.
Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) spokesperson Siwe Pamla condemned the recent attacks on foreign-owned businesses in KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo is a “very complicated issue” and also described the attacks as “very painful.”
Pamla complained about Home Affairs not doing its job properly which allowed foreign nationals to operate in South Africa without proper documentation.
“You have the department of home affairs that does not take seriously the issue of immigration. Meaning, let’s have a sober immigration policy informed by the interests of South Africans. We cannot have a naive foreign policy that is a free for all.”
While Phakamile Hlubi, National Union of Metal Workers (Numsa) spokesperson said the union rejects the idea of foreigners and said it believes in socialism and unity of the working class.
“There should be unity of all working class people. Our job is to educate immigrant workers that they must not allow themselves to be abused.”
South African Federation of Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi observed that the issue of attacks was a complicated one.
“There is no straight line. Any attack that is aimed at foreign-owned businesses smells of xenophobia. We condemn them outright.”
In her statement Sisulu said the South African government acknowledged the significant contribution and sacrifices made by the African continent for South Africans to be free and be liberated from the apartheid government.
Sisulu added that South African companies and South Africans were involved in different businesses across the continent without hindrance.
“South African companies and our citizens are welcomed and loved across the continent.
“Here at home we should do the same, we must embrace our neighbours and fellow South Africans” said Sisulu.
She said in different international forums, including the United Nations (UN), the African Union (AU), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African continent and other countries in the world looked up to South Africa for leadership.
“All of us must stand up and send a strong message that violence, all criminal activities and looting of properties of foreign nationals will not be tolerated, and the police and other law-enforcement agencies must act without fear or favour.”
Without revealing details of the meeting, the department said “the meeting, which will happen as soon as possible, will focus on how ambassadors and government can work with communities and all stakeholders to foster integration in communities”.
Political analyst Dr Ntsikelelo Breakfast said xenophobia is a complex matter and says there are several factors behind attacks on foreign nationals.
He says at the heart of xenophobia is an element of “us and them”, fight for resources and a psychology of violence among other factors.”
Sunday Independent and ANA