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Xenophobic violence last May organised by community leaders, says researcher

Resource type: News

Cape Times (South Africa) |

JOHANNESBURG: The xenophobic violence last May was organised by “community leaders”, a university researcher said yesterday.

“The community leaders – the street committees, the comrades, the CPF (Community Policing Forum) as they are called – are involved.

“They were the ones who were organising the attacks,” said Jeanne Pierre Misago, a researcher at the Wits University Forced Migration Studies Programme.

“The idea that it was caused by a faceless crowd doesn’t hold water, because there are individuals we can identify in the township,” said Misago.

He identified Madala hostel in Alexandra Township as a place where xenophobic attacks were planned.

“It is common knowledge that leaders organised in this hostel. Police are aware … but do not interfere’.”

He said local leaders organised xenophobic attacks to improve their credibility within the community.

“They can then say they are the one true leader of the community,” said Misago.

He was addressing a conference as part of a panel at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg about the findings of a report on the xenophobic attacks which was published by the International Organisation for Movement.

He was one of the authors of the report “Towards Tolerance, Law and Dignity: Addressing Violence against Foreign Nationals in South Africa”.

According to the report, “community leadership is an attractive alternative for the largely unemployed residents of the informal settlements.It is indeed a form of paid employment or an income-generating activity”.

The report read that it was “common practice” for community leaders to “levy protection fees”, sell or rent shacks, land and RDP houses and take bribes.

The report added that community leadership is then perceived as a “lucrative business” where different people compete for credibility.

Because many shops and spazas are owned by foreigners, local business people also engage in organising xenophobic violence.

The report cited examples, even before the May violence, where it is believed South Africans planned violence against business competitors who were foreigners, particularly Somalis.

Misago said media reports also played a role in spreading the violence. He said that by reporting on the successful looting by mobs of shops owned by foreigners and the inability of police to cope with the situation, other potential perpetrators of violence believed they could act with impunity.

During the conference, law enforcement also came under scrutiny. “Slow police response helped this. These people thought they could get away with it,” said Misago.

The regional representative of IOM, Hans Petter Boe, who was also part of the panel, said: “One of the key points was that the justice system has to work. There has to be a publicly visible pursuit and prosecution of the perpetrators of the violence as examples.”

But few perpetrators of the violence were brought to book.

The Human Rights Commission programme co-ordinator on migration and non-nationals Joyce Tlou, who was also part of the panel, said the May xenophobic violence was evidence that “we (the HRC) have somehow failed in our mandate” to protect the human rights of people living in South Africa. – Sapa