Sonke reminds the South African government that equality is the hard-fought for cornerstone of our democracy, and there is no space for any violence against people based on their race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation or identity, ethnicity, disability, religion or creed. “When South Africans fighting for equality were being persecuted by the Apartheid government, it was many of our neighbours in Africa who gave safe refuge to those fighting the cause of freedom,” says Sonke’s Communication Manager, Czerina Patel, “All South Africans have a responsibility to speak out against violence meted out against vulnerable or marginalised people, but also to ensure that South Africa’s international reputation as a country that embraces equality and human rights is not damaged by those who seek to oppress on the basis of difference.”
Sonke notes with sadness the tragic deaths in Soweto and Langlaagte following the looting of small businesses such as spaza shops and cafes, and where shops owned by cross-border migrants seem to be the main targets. This looting and violence draw attention to ongoing levels of xenophobia in South Africa following, in particular, the brutal deaths of at least 62 people during widespread xenophobic attacks in May 2008. The African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of Witwatersrand points out that those xenophobic attacks didn’t stop in May 2008, and that in fact more people have died in attacks against foreign nationals every year, than in 2008. Many reports cite government inaction as one reason for the continued violence.
Sonke urgently calls on government to step up efforts to protect foreign nationals and all people within South Africa’s borders, and to provide strong leadership to stop the violence.
“In our daily work, we encounter a lot of misunderstanding of migrants in South African communities,” says Saint Expedit Ondzongo, a trainer with Sonke’s Refugee Health & Rights programme, “Often this misunderstanding, or misinformation such as ‘Foreigners come to South Africa to take South African jobs’, lead to xenophobia. This violence and hostility hurts South Africans and non-South Africans.
Today is also the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust (and the 70th anniversary of the Second World War and the founding of the United Nations). Amongst other things, U.N. Resolution 60/7 which establishes 27 January as International Holocaust Remembrance Day “condemns without reserve all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief, wherever they occur”.
“As the world remembers the millions of Jews who were killed in the holocaust,” says Patel, “we also remember and send our sympathies to the families of those killed on the basis of their nationality and race within our own borders in the twenty-first century.”
Sonke’s work is firmly grounded in the principle of equality, and that all people have the right to live in a world free from violence, hate crimes and oppression. We condemn violence, and in particular violent acts flowing from prejudice and hate. We therefore, call on the government to issue an unequivocal statement that the current attacks are xenophobic in nature, and to protect all who live in South Africa. We call on government and civil society to increase the investment in containing the current violence, and to put long-term measures in place to prevent and address violence and hostility, particularly through the promotion of social cohesion and fostering a culture of respect for human rights and the law.