South African xenophobic violence: Why it happened

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Xenophobic violence that swept across South Africa last year was organised by local leaders wanting to further their own political and economic interests, according to a report released Wednesday.

The report entitled: Towards Tolerance, Law and Dignity: Addressing Violence against Foreign Nationals in South Africa, is the result of a study carried out by the Forced Migration Studies Programme at Wits University on behalf of the IOM.

Mobs of young South African men armed with guns, machetes and home-made weapons last year murdered at least 62 African immigrants and displaced more than 30 000 others in a wave of xenophobic violence that began in Johannesburg and quickly spread to other cities across the continent’s most prosperous country.

The attacks against fellow Africans shocked South Africa, a nation that loves to portray itself as one of the most tolerant societies in the world and for a moment unsettled foreign investors.

The report commissioned by the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) said there was little evidence to back claims from some quarters in South Africa that a “third force” was behind the violence.

It further said there was no evidence to support claims that lax border controls that had allowed millions of foreigners from across the continent to flood South Africa, or changes in political leadership in the ruling ANC party and a rising cost of living were behind the xenophobic attacks.

The report said no one factor could be said to have caused the violence and instead suggested that a combination of factors including ethnic tensions, high crime rates, organised violence and a lack of institutionalised leadership could have driven the attacks against African immigrants.

The researchers called for cooperation between government, civil society and international organisations to address leadership vacuums and reduce the risk of xenophobic attacks in the future.

They urged the setting up of an official commission of inquiry to identify those who carried out violence and called for the prosecution of community leaders and individuals involved in the xenophobic attacks.

The report said there was need for reform of local governance and leadership structures to protect the rights of all residents and provide legal support for marginalised groups including immigrants at community level.

There was also need for education and awareness campaigns to enlighten citizens of the country’s laws as well as the rights of immigrants, while immigration authorities should do more to facilitate legal migration in order to curtail corruption, labour exploitation and other practices that disadvantage South Africans and foreigners, the report said.

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