South Africa: xenophobia – a crime against humanity
05 June 2015

Xenophobia is once again rearing its ugly head in South Africa. The attacks are a matter for leadership, civil, political and religious to take seriously.
The churches have a crucial role to play as they perceive humanity as larger than narrow nationalistic or ethnic groupings. They must resist any impulse to define communities as such.
Johannesburg, 5 June 2015 – Xenophobia is once again rearing its ugly head in our country. At least five people are dead, three of them South Africans, as a result of the violent lootings of foreign-owned shops in townships around Johannesburg. More than 80 shops have been destroyed.

Media sensationalism and denial amongst leadership and the police paint these attacks as acts of criminality and not xenophobia. This is hard to argue when only foreigners' shops were looted. But there is a half-truth: an attack on foreigners in South Africa is indeed an attack on South Africans, and all they stand for, and this is criminal. This is why the attacks are a matter for leadership, civil, political and religious to take seriously.

The recent events recall those of 2008 when over 100,000 people were displaced and 63 people killed in xenophobic attacks. What the media is not reporting is that each year since then, excepting 2009, many more have died in xenophobic attacks. In 2013 alone, 240 refugees were killed in this country, some in the most gruesome circumstances. Meanwhile municipal councils pass local statutes with the aim of excluding foreigners from the economy and isolating them from the community.

Since xenophobia appears to be a well-established part of the South African landscape, it is important to debunk some commonly held myths:

Myth 1: South Africa is overrun by immigrants and refugees.

South Africa hosts one of the highest asylum-seeking populations in the world (estimated at 315,000). Overall, however, it is a low-ranking immigration country with 4% of its population foreign born, roughly two million people.

Myth 2: Immigrants and especially refugees take locals' jobs.

A mounting body of research from countries as diverse as Uganda, Tanzania, Denmark and Australia, and within South Africa, suggests that refugees and immigrants provide successful business models of services not readily available, create jobs and generate income for South Africans – their presence benefits the economy.

After the recent attacks, poor South Africans corroborated this when they lamented the loss of the local Somali-run spaza shops, which provided good service, credit when times are tough and cheap groceries nearby.

Myth 3: By accepting immigrants, South Africa is in danger of losing its cultures.

Here the experience of Australia is instructive. Successive waves of immigrants have changed the fabric of Australian society in a manner that no one could have dreamed or planned. It has produced tensions but a genuine multi-cultural experiment has left the country receptive to greater trade with more partners than before.

Myth 4: Immigration encourages terrorism.

The Charlie Hebdo perpetrators "felt French but were regarded (by many French) as foreign". If we do not include immigrants in the development of our society, then disaffection mounts. Immigration is something that has to be worked at constantly.

Myth 5: South Africans are unwelcoming.

In my experience, South Africans are as hospitable as any race on earth – xenophobia has its roots somewhere else.

The way forward

The first move is to call these violent attacks on foreigners what they are – xenophobic and therefore criminal. Perpetrators must be prosecuted so that all learn that violence is not a legitimate language to express grievance.

Secondly, it is vital to bring together community, political and religious leaders to talk about the causes of the attacks. These lie in the realm of a lack of hope and vision in a society where many young people are entering adulthood with poor education, few prospects and little political voice. Nor do they perceive that leadership really care or listen to them.

The roots of xenophobia are the great disparity of wealth, and geographically defined social and economic exclusion of large portions of the community, who do not experience the social compact that coheres a society into something meaningful for all its constituents. The lack of accountability to a local constituency is a particular feature of South Africa that must be addressed.

The churches have a crucial role to play as they perceive humanity as larger than narrow nationalistic or ethnic groupings. They must resist any impulse to define communities as such.

We can take heart that Jesus himself struggled with the forces of scapegoating and racism, and it was a foreigner who prompted him to completely reimagine his mission. We are direct beneficiaries of the Syrophoenician woman's intercession and we should never see the foreigner as anything but an opportunity to reflect and reconfigure our values and lives.


Reflections for Prayer



Suggested Reading for Prayer
In one episode in the gospel of Mark (7:24-30), Jesus leaves Jewish land to go to the pagan territory of Tyre. A native of that region, a Syrophoenician (a Greek with a different religion and culture), asks Jesus to heal her daughter who is possessed by an evil spirit. Jesus replies: "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." Jesus' words surprise us. It seems he shares the views of his people who look down on non-Jews as dogs because they do not belong to the chosen people. Also, the more developed Syrophoenicia exploits Galilee, Jesus' home region. But she says, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Then he answers, "For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter". Jesus' reaction can be ours: he is in foreign territory, met by a stranger who wants help. And he answers 'no'. But the woman comes back with humility, intelligence and courage. Perhaps in her words, Jesus hears his father's voice telling him to break down the barrier of his prejudices and to accept the intrusion of the other in need. Gender, origin, culture and religion separated Jesus from the woman. She teaches him to bridge those differences.

Pablo Alonso SJ, taken from 'God in Exile', a book published by JRS in 2005