SA police accused of 'state xenophobia'

Migrant women risk violence trying to make ends meet

A protest march organised by local organisation Kopanang Africa held in Johannesburg in March last year highlighted injustices against foreign nationals.
A protest march organised by local organisation Kopanang Africa held in Johannesburg in March last year highlighted injustices against foreign nationals.
Image: Thapelo Morebudi

State xenophobia remains a sobering truth in SA as migrants recount how they can’t trust the services they get from the police who they accuse of often looking at their nationalities rather than helping them. 

Roshila Nair, convener at Global South Against xenophobia said the phrase, “institutionalised xenophobia” is a phrase her organisation is quite familiar with. 

“We also refer to it as ‘state xenophobia’. Xenophobia reflected in government and state actions,” said Nair. 

Nair raised concerns over the government’s lack of engagement with migrants, “civil society, and the public regarding economic development, human rights abuses, and recognition of migrant refugee and asylum seeker rights in SA”. 

“If our economic and migrants” policies do not translate into practical safety and wellbeing for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from the continent, then the problem of state xenophobia remains despite the constitutional and various other protocols SA is a signatory to,” said Nair.

According to Dr Venencia Nyambuya, migrants, especially migrant women risk violence in the pursuit of making ends meet. “Women risk sexual harassment and violence every time they sell goods on the streets or in flea markets, go to work, or take public transportation, and they have little recourse or protection from this violence. They report that the police are indifferent to their claims, and/or ask for bribes or sex in exchange for services,” said Nyambuya. 

In her dissertation, Nyambuya writes about the ethnographic portraits of migrant women challenging gender-based violence in Durban. She emphasised how the women she interviewed for her paper, feared going to the police because they would be judged by their nationality. 

“Migrant women in SA face numerous challenges in accessing public services. They often faced difficulties in accessing healthcare services, mistreatment by public health providers, and daily medical xenophobia. These issues are prevalent in clinics and hospitals, highlighting the challenges faced by these women in their daily lives,” said Nymabuya.

Her dissertation is entitled Life Stories: Ethnographic Portraits of Migrant Women Challenging Gender-Based Violence in Durban, SA.

One of the women interviewed for her dissertation, Thoko, a 40-year-old Zimbabwean woman arrived in Durban in search of greener pastures following Zimbabwe’s 2008 economic collapse. 

Thoko, lost her partner to xenophobic attacks in Johannesburg.  For Thoko, being in Johannesburg brought her traumatic experiences of the 2008 xenophobic attacks.  She later decided to move to Durban. 

Thoko said, the police in Durban were believed to be more lenient compared to the ones in Johannesburg because they never asked for proof of identity from foreigners largely found in the CBD. Thoko described how difficult it was to denounce abuse in SA because of one’s legal standing and language. 

“I am not ready to be known as a foreigner because I fear that doing so would only create enemies for me in a xenophobic environment like the one I stay and work in. The police are not who we think they are, instead of protecting us they help these injustices to prevail because we are not welcome here. I fear the police,” said Thoko. 

National police spokesperson Brig Athlenda Mathe said police members are well trained, competent, disciplined, “and act within the parameters (ambit) of the constitution and SAPS code of conduct which doesn’t allow and tolerate any form of discrimination against anyone in the country”. 

“We nullify and refute any allegations levelled against the SAPS that police officers are perpetuating xenophobic attacks against the foreigners or illegal immigrants in the country. We are making an earnest plea to members of the community and media to report any form of xenophobia perpetuated to the crime,” said Mathe. 

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) said they did receive complaints of exploitation of the rights of refugees and migrants. 

“We have also received complaints on how the process has violated rights. Based on complaints received on exploitation and abuse, the SAHRC believes that vulnerable people’s rights are being violated by officials who are not sensitive to the human rights of these people,” said commissioner Angie Makwetla. 

Makwetla said the problem of violation can be dealt with by ensuring that officials understand the laws, “policies and instruments promoting human rights. Officials should be held to a high standard and if found wanting they should be punished accordingly.” 

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