HARARE – Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned the xenophobic attacks on foreigners in South Africa, saying they present a litmus test for President Jacob Zuma’s government.
This comes as looting spread to Verulam, north of Durban, on Tuesday night, following a day of clashes between locals, foreigners, and police in the city centre, and as foreign-owned shops in Johannesburg CBD started closing their doors after rumours that a mob was threatening violence.
Dewa Mavhinga, HRW southern Africa senior researcher, said the developments can dent SA’s reputation as the most democratic State in Africa.
“UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) says three camps holding victims of xenophobic attacks in Durban contain about 2 400 people,” Mavhinga said. “The target of the widespread violence was African immigrants, mostly those from Zimbabwe and Somalia.
“If unchecked, these xenophobic attacks could soon engulf Durban and spread to other parts of South Africa. For a country that projects itself as an African human rights champion, the litmus test will be how the South African government stems this dangerous tide of xenophobia”.
President Robert Mugabe met his SA counterpart last week amid the chaos. However, the two leaders skirted the catastrophe.
President Jacob Zuma’s administration has denied that the attacks were xenophobic, describing them as “pure acts of criminality”.
Mavhinga said it was important that the government and law enforcement agencies admit the attacks are xenophobic if the scourge is to be effectively contained.
“The first step is for the police and the government to publicly acknowledge that on-going attacks on foreign nationals and their property are xenophobic and then take decisive action to tackle it,” he said.
“This should include prioritising reforms to combat xenophobia, ensuring proper police investigations of xenophobic crimes, and holding to account those responsible.
“Reckless and inflammatory public statements, such as those made by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini prior to the Durban violence, should be unambiguously condemned. And those who cross the line into direct incitement to violence against migrants should be prosecuted.”
Zwelithini said foreigners should leave the country. In the past few days, several demonstrations have been done calling for the pulling down of foreign icons’ statues in SA.
Joy Mabenge, regional coordinator for the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, said they noted with regret, escalating cases of violent attacks targeted at foreign nationals in South Africa.
“We are particularly worried with the situation unfolding in the KwaZulu Natal (KZN) province, where a number of foreign nationals, including Zimbabweans, have suffered physical and psychological harm,” Mabenge said.
“It is our view that these attacks go against the grain of humanity and severely compromise the people-to-people solidarity which has existed between South Africa and her fellow African countries for many years.
“We commend South African authorities, in particular the ministry of Home Affairs and other security cluster ministries, for responding to the xenophobic attacks. We urge them, however, to urgently deploy more resources directed at protecting human life, regardless of nationality.”
The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition said it will continue to work with various stakeholders, including the South African government and civil society establishments in finding a lasting solution to threats of xenophobia.