South Africa: Ten years after xenophobic killings, refugees and migrants still living in fear

Ten years after an outbreak of horrific xenophobic violence claimed 60 lives in South Africa, refugees and migrants are still facing daily discrimination and living in constant fear of physical attacks, Amnesty International said today.

The xenophobic violence that spread across South Africa in 2008 should have been a wake-up call for the government
Shenilla Mohamed, Executive Director of Amnesty International South Africa

On 11 May 2008 a Mozambican national, Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuaye, was beaten, stabbed and set alight in a brutal killing which set off a chain of violent attacks against migrants and refugees in South Africa.

“The violence that spread across South Africa in 2008 should have been a wake-up call for the government, underscoring the catastrophic consequences of its failure to root out hatred against refugees and migrants. But 10 years on, refugees and migrants still feel the echoes of that terrifying period,” said Shenilla Mohamed, Executive Director of Amnesty International South Africa.

“Ongoing xenophobia in South Africa is compounded by the failed criminal justice system, with many cases remaining unresolved, which allows perpetrators to attack refugees and migrants with impunity. There has been a marked failure to bring those responsible for the 2008 attacks to justice, emboldening future attackers and leaving refuges and migrants in a constant state of fear.”

Since 2008 there have been numerous outbreaks of violence against refugees and migrants in South Africa.

On 7 June 2014, violence erupted in Mamelodi, a township northeast of Pretoria, resulting in attacks on shops owned by people of Somali origin in and around the township over a period of six days costing lives and livelihoods. Amnesty International noted the police’s failure to respond to the attacks at the time.

10 years on, refugees and migrants still feel the echoes of that terrifying period
Shenilla Mohamed

In April 2015 another Mozambican national, Emmanuel Sithole, was stabbed to death in Alexander township in Johannesburg. His murder was captured by South Africa's Sunday Times photographer, James Oatway, who happened to be in the township at the time.

In the same month, widespread attacks against refugees, migrants and their businesses were recorded in Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal. At least four people were killed while many others were seriously injured, shops looted and more than 1000 people displaced in the province.

On 24 February 2017, residents of Pretoria took to the streets protesting against high inequality, poverty and unemployment, which they blamed on refugees and migrants. The protests were accompanied by confrontations and violence.

In some cases, xenophobia has been fueled by the hate-filled rhetoric of South African authorities.

For example, in December 2016, the Executive Mayor of City of Johannesburg Herman Mashaba labelled foreign nationals living in Johannesburg “criminals” who had hijacked the city. He blamed them for the high levels of crime in the city.

Ongoing xenophobia in South Africa is compounded by the failed criminal justice system, with many cases remaining unresolved
Shenilla Mohamed

Amnesty International is calling for thorough investigations into all outstanding xenophobia-related cases, with access to reparation for all the victims who have suffered discrimination and attacks. The perpetrators must be brought to justice in order to break the cycle of violence.

Background

South Africa has experienced violence with xenophobic undertones for decades, but in recent years there was an escalation in scale and intensity.

In its 2008 report, South Africa “Talk for us, please”: Limited options facing individuals displaced by xenophobic violence, Amnesty International highlighted serious flaws in the government’s response to the violence. The organization, among others, recommended that the government takes all appropriate measures to bring those responsible for the xenophobic attacks to justice.