Violence & Xenophobia in South Africa: Human Sciences Research Council briefing

Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation

19 November 2008
Chairperson: Ms Z Kota-Fredericks (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) briefed the Portfolio Committee on the research conducted and the report compiled by the Council regarding the violent xenophobic outbreaks and their correlations with housing issues. The research related largely to perceptions of people in the informal settlements of Alexandria, Thembisa and Mamelodi. Many people in these informal settlements expressed strong sentiments related to housing issues, more specifically to housing allocations, and a lack of information and communication by government about the waiting lists. Whilst housing was not the direct trigger for the outbreak of xenophobic violence, it contributed to the frustrations felt by the people in these areas.

Members and the Department of Housing officials contested some of the assumptions made by the HSRC in their report, claiming that the HSRC’s research and feedback was not substantial enough to make direct correlations between housing issues and the violent outbreaks, and the comment was made that the report seemed not comprehensive enough and seemed to have been hastily produced. The HSRC stressed that its mandate had been limited, and that the reports were to some extent lacking because of the time limits imposed by government. Furthermore, they agreed that far more substantial solutions should be achieved by partaking in more long term research and suggested that if asked, the HSRC was prepared to engage with the government in the policy making processes concerning causes such as housing and its relationship with the outbreak xenophobic violence. The Chairperson agreed that this was a work in progress and that further measures would have to be taken if any substantial solutions were to be produced.

Meeting report

Violence and Xenophobia in South Africa: Human Science Research Council (HSRC) briefing
Dr Adrian Hadland, Research Director, Human Science Research Council, stated that within three days after the break out of xenophobic violence, field teams were sent to Thembisa, Alexandria and Mamelodi, in order to do research that would reach some conclusions as to the reasons for the xenophobic violence. Two main focussed groups were established and categorized as Gender and Age. These categories were significant, as they showed that different perceptions by people in these areas were frequently the direct result of their gender and age. Within two weeks of the outbreak of violence, a report, consisting largely of a summary of perceptions as to why the xenophobic attacks had occurred, was produced and handed to Hon Zola Skweyiya, Minister of Social Development.  A workshop of 50 stakeholders comprising mainly of scholars and government officials was established for the purpose of interpreting the findings and producing recommendations, which were included in a second report compiled after this workshop.

Dr Hadland stated that the common perception in all three areas was that housing issues were a critical trigger of the frustrations and an important element in the violence that took place. Other factors such as poor service delivery, unemployment and poverty were also deemed to be important elements leading to the frustrations felt by people in these areas. With regard to geographical considerations, he noted that urban poverty was rapidly increasing while rural poverty was decreasing, suggesting that urbanisation was taking place, which in turn resulting in increased pressure on housing in urban areas. When assessing the findings, it was apparent that South Africans' xenophobic sentiments toward foreigners were increasing everywhere. The triggers for violence were therefore identified as being a combination of housing issues, poor service delivery, unemployment and poverty.

Communities were also experiencing a lack of knowledge about housing allocations and their positions on the waiting list. Proper communication about such issues should be the responsibility of government. There was evidence showing that the better-structured communities had less chance of becoming violent. For instance, in the Izamo Yethu informal settlement near Hout Bay, the community was not only actively refusing to take part in violence against foreigners but also was making an effort to extend themselves to foreigners and welcome them back into the community, despite the police encouraging foreigners to leave there. He noted that it would reduce the tension if somehow there was to be better collaboration with foreigners, so that they would be willing to offer their many skills to the community, partake in community activities and become incorporated in the system in some way. A National Imbizo would be necessary around this concern of xenophobia, housing and other social service issues that had been contributing to these tensions. The HSRC had not been approached to make policy but rather to act a research agency. However, if asked to suggest policies, it would be glad to engage and assist in this process. The term, ‘othering’ rather than xenophobia should be used, as it was technically more correct. 

Mr G Schneemann (ANC) asked whether this HSRC report was presented to the Parliamentary Task Team, and whether the HSRC for its part had read the Parliamentary Task Team’s report. 

Mr Schneemann asked what the HSRC would recommend with regard to Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) houses that were allocated to certain individuals but then would be sold, within the allocated five year period.

Dr Hadland stated that there had been engagement with government and that the Task Team set up in producing this report included many government members as well. He noted that the HSRC had not been tasked with producing specific recommendations for housing, but rather was asked to research reasons for why the violent xenophobic outbreaks had occurred.

Mr A Steyn (DA) asked if there were any concrete steps that could be taken to prevent these acts of discrimination against foreigners. He was concerned that these sentiments toward foreigners were getting worse over time, rather than improving. He noted that there were widely held perceptions in the informal settlements that South African citizens were being sidelined, and that foreigners were getting privileges at the expense of those South African citizens.

Dr Hadland said that perceptions of how South Africans viewed foreigners needed to be changed. This could be done through education, as well as festivals at which foreigners could display their cultures, which would be useful in changing these negative attitudes toward foreigners living in South Africa.

Ms N Ngele (ANC) suggested that housing was not the main catalyst for the xenophobic violence but rather that it was other issues that that brought about the violent outbreak against foreigners.

Dr Hadland agreed that the HSRC’s research strongly linked the outbreaks of violence with tensions and frustrations surrounding housing issues.

Ms M Ramakaba-Lesiea (ANC) asserted her contempt with the outbreak of ‘black-on-black’ violence and made reference to this type of violence being prevalent in South Africa in the last 85 years.

Mr Clarence Tshitereke, Advisor in the Office of the Director-General, Department of Housing, stated that the report was not comprehensive enough to make any sufficiently supported linkages between housing issues and the xenophobic outbreaks earlier in the year. The HRSC did not have sufficient knowledge about housing issues and policies. Rather than focussing on housing, it would be more useful if greater focus was placed on poverty and relative deprivation. It would be easy to blame housing issues as the cause of these violent xenophobic attacks because a house was something physical as opposed to a more generic concept such as social development. In an investigation conducted by the Gauteng Provincial Department of Housing, it was established that only nine houses were being occupied by foreigners, and around 60 000 to 70 000 houses were built annually in Gauteng. This showed that, even if there had been any who were not found by this investigation, in fact only a very small percentage of foreigners actually occupied houses. The recommendations that had made appeared to be inaccurate and the report seemed to have been rushed.

Mr Ahmedi Vawda, Technical Advisor in the Office of the Director-General, Department of Housing, stated that the research needed to be much more substantive. Mr Vawda contested the fact that literature used to explain actual phenomena was used incorrectly. He used the examples of literature applying to the urban edge. Many of the informal settlements with outbreaks of violence did not fall into this category, but rather described it as the category of dislocation. The literature thus did not accurately correlate with what was happening in reality. While perceptions could be useful, they could also perpetuate views that contradicted what was happening in reality.

Mr Vawda pointed out that the HSRC had admitted that housing was not a direct trigger. Far more complex issues other than housing must have been the final trigger for the violence and it seemed to be easy to blame housing for these violent outbreaks. Mr Vawda agreed that the conceptual term ‘othering’ would be more useful than xenophobia, a term which was loaded and less useful.

Mr M Khauoe (ANC) asked whether efforts were made by the HSRC to uncover any existence of a third force playing a role in the outbreak of xenophobic violence, and asked if any contact had been made with the National Intelligence Agency on the rumours of a third force.

Dr Hadland confirmed that there was no experience of any existence of a third force. There was no engagement with the National Intelligence Agency on this issue. The HSRC did have housing experts but they did not partake in this specific research study. Dr Hadland agreed that the study was not substantive enough, but said that this was due to the time limit imposed by government, rather than a lack of sufficient work done by the HSRC.

Mr Suren Pillay, Senior Research Advisor, HSRC, stated that the HSRC identified the problems and challenges in the study, as it was important to know these challenges before starting to formulate plausible solutions. That had been the limited job of the HSRC. Whilst the recommendations may not have been fully adequate, perhaps the research would lead to some more concrete and plausible recommendations and solutions in the future.

The Chairperson noted that this report was a starting point in a much larger investigation that should be undertaken. She noted that while housing could not be directly named as the cause for the violent xenophobic outbreaks, it should still be considered as unhappiness around general housing issues was a prevalent factor in the research done. She noted that there were many problems, especially around the concern of housing allocation and the waiting list. She asserted that there should be more done and that this should be seen as work in progress.

The meeting was adjourned.


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