Xenophobia Attacks: Ministerial briefing

Home Affairs

29 May 2008
Chairperson: Mr P Chauke (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Chairperson referred briefly to a remark made by a DA Member the previous day, which had appeared to inflame some of the perceptions around xenophobic attacks, and he noted that all Members of this Committee had been dealing with the matter on a non-party basis and were actively engaged in their constituencies to convey the concerns and the fact that such attacks were unacceptable. The Minister of Home Affairs addressed the Committee. On 14 May a Ministerial Task Team had been set up to investigate the nature and possible causes of attacks in Gauteng, and had interacted with a provincial team in Gauteng, with a first joint meeting being held on 20 May. Some preliminary work had been done, but not enough information was available to determine the causes. She mentioned that 18 000 people had been protected at police stations, and that a number of church groups and civil society organisations had proferred assistance. Temporary shelters had been created, but she stressed that it was not the intention of the department to create refugee camps, as this was contrary to the principles of integration. Communities must be empowered to understand that xenophobia manifested itself in various ways. Border control issues were raised and she emphasised that migration was a world-wide challenge, and that it was not the task of the Department to police the borders but rather to regulate the stay of people in the country.

The Task Team was still investigating the root cause of the attacks, which had been variously attributed to poverty, challenges around service delivery, attitudes, failure to patrol the borders and documentation challenges. There was the possibility that criminal, violent and corruptive elements would also seize on the opportunity to prey on the ignorance and vulnerability of communities. There had been calls for a general amnesty, but this was not necessarily the best route, and not all migrants wanted to have political asylum, as some were economic migrants who returned to their families over weekends. She set out the interventions of the Mozambique government in respect of its nationals. The department was not using the opportunity to identify illegal migrants as an excuse to deport them, and any illegal migrants affected by the violence would not be deported at the moment and nobody would be arrested from places of safety. South Africa was not preventing anyone from returning to their home country, but neither was it intending to condone all illegal migration. Gauteng had been declared a provincial disaster area, and Western Cape was likely to be. The Department was investigating how the Immigration Act might be used to grant temporary exemption from arrest and deportation. Issues of safety and security were important, and special courts were being set up to deal with the incidents. The numbers at the centres were apparently decreasing, as some communities had actively called on those displaced to return. She concluded by summarizing the interventions of the special Turnaround project on migration, on which she and the Director General could brief the Committee if required.

Members asked questions about the rumours of community meetings preceding the attacks, and people allegedly being transported to communities to attack them, the rumours of the involvement of a third force, whether there were now plans to deal with migration in a different or faster way, the possibility of economic causes arising from jealousy of others’ successes, and the reports that countries would be assisting their nationals to claim compensation. Other questions related to whether more staff would be assigned to the Department to deal with these matters, and what actions were being taken by the Police Service to investigate its own members.

Meeting report

Ministerial Briefing on Xenophobic attacks
The Chairperson noted that the attacks on foreigners had been a major cause for concern over the last few weeks, and it seemed that in some instances these attacks had also been perpetrated on South Africans.  Parliament had set up a task team, which had visited Gauteng on Monday. Yesterday the Portfolio Committee on Safety and Security had looked into the matter, and he noted that a Member of the DA had made a statement that was open to unfortunate interpretation, seemingly inflaming some of the perceptions that foreign immigrants were benefiting from local services, and had been asked to withdraw that statement. He noted that the DA members of this Committee had been at pains to deal with the matters without party political bias, and he called upon all Members to assist in their constituencies to convey the message of concern and that such attacks were unacceptable. This Committee would not be in favour of the move to create permanent segregated camps as it believed that all people, local and foreign, must live together. He noted that officials of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) had been taking a central role in assistance.

Hon Minister of Home Affairs, Ms Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, noted that on 14 May, after the outbreak of xenophobic attacks, a Ministerial Task Team was set up, comprising the Ministers of Health, Education, Safety and Security, Social Development and Home Affairs, and was mandated to visit the area to investigate the nature of the attacks and the reasons for them. This Task Team interacted with structures on ground and the foreigners affected, but before it could begin with the process of investigation it was confronted with further incidents of violence in Gauteng. The Team then interacted with a provincial team in Gauteng, but the Ministerial Task Team realised that it was not well enough placed to investigate the issues on its own. It needed regular feedback from the Security Forces about what was happening. The first joint team meeting was then held on 20 May. This Joint Team had been working and meeting on a daily basis since then. The terms of reference had been to focus on the causes, but the Team found itself more occupied with issues of humanitarian assistance because of the crisis. At that stage the incidents had occurred in Gauteng had not spread to Western Cape or other parts of the country.

The Joint Task Team did some preliminary work to try to form a picture of what had led to the attacks. However, in the absence of full information, it was unable to provide a report on precisely why the violence was occurring, and it would be premature at this stage to make a report.

As a result of the attacks, around 18 000 people were housed in police stations, and clearly they could not continue to do so as there were not proper facilities or shelter. A number of organisations and churches, in particular the Methodist Church and Red Cross had immediately proferred assistance. The immediate challenge was to get people to proper accommodation. Local municipalities did sometimes have buildings that could have been used to house people, were it not for the fact that there were legal impediments such as by laws preventing people from staying there for more than about 24 hours. Provincial governments therefore requested mayors to identify land on which to set up camps or temporary shelters. Land was identified, an assessment of the land had been done, tents had been acquired from the SA National Defence Force and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and the Team had been setting up temporary shelters. The Minister stressed that these were temporary shelters and there was no intention to set up refugee camps, despite some media allegations that refugee camps were being created. She stressed that those attacked had included refugees, migrants, asylum seekers and local South Africans. These shelters were purely temporary and government and local structures must try to ensure that all people were reintegrated back into communities. All local structures, communities, religious and civic leaders were trying to deal with the challenge of xenophobic attitudes. The creation of permanent shelters and segregation would create the impression that xenophobia was condoned, and encourage the perceptions that people should be segregated instead of living side by side.

The Minister said that deadlines had been set, but this would depend on the work done, including work by all those who lived in those areas. It was necessary to empower communities to understand xenophobia. Xenophobia manifested itself in various ways. It could be ethic – as evidenced by the attacks specifically against certain tribes in Gauteng; or take a sexist or chauvinist – such as women being raped under the guise that they were foreign. The challenge for the DHA, in conjunction with the SA Human Rights Commission, was to forge partnerships in society to conscientise the public about the nature and dangers of these attitudes

The Minister noted that issues of border control had been raised. Without attempting to sound defensive, she pointed out that it was not the mandate of DHA to conduct operations on the border, but only to regulate the stay of people in the country. The issue of migration had become a world-wide challenge. South Africa may have its shortcomings as a country, but its policies on immigration had been praised as being amongst the best in seeking to integrate refugees. It was possible that further issues around regulation of Section 22 permits may have to be considered for asylum seekers, but she stressed that South Africa did not wish to create refugee camps. She reiterated that attacks had also been perpetrated on those who were naturalised and those who had documentation.

The Minister then stated that the brutality of the attacks was a challenge and it was necessary to find out what had led to them. It had been suggested that now that apartheid was no longer a common enemy, other enemies were being found. Some suggested that poverty was the root cause – but if this was so, then she enquired why this was not happening throughout the whole Continent, which suffered poverty. It was unlikely that this was the sole cause. There were certainly challenges around service delivery, attitudes and documents, but this too did not justify recent events. The attacks could also not be attributed to failure to patrol the borders.

There had been calls for a general amnesty, but the Minister queried whether this would be the best route. She reminded the Committee that in 1996 there had been an amnesty in respect of immigrants, and 1.6 million migrants were registered during that amnesty, who now had permanent residence in South Africa, and were benefiting from services. Some had suggested a moratorium on deportations for some months. Others proposed refugee status being awarded to all migrants from Zimbabwe. This ground had been covered by the DHA before. She pointed out that not all Zimbabweans wanted political asylum; most were economic migrants to South Africa, who would return to Zimbabwe over the weekends to take food to their families. Serious consequences attached to refugee status, and a person would have to make a conscious decision whether or not to be declared a refugee.

The Minister pointed out that this crisis reflected a societal mindset, in which wild statements or rumours were being spread that migrants were responsible for taking the food, causing rising prices, or adding to the oil crisis, and taking advantage of the ignorance and vulnerability of the public. The reason that people were living in shacks could not be ascribed to the failure of South Africa to deliver houses. Many of those moving to shacks were young people of 15 or 16, thinking they could set up homes with their partners. South Africa had never conducted a survey of who was in the informal settlements. Wild statements did not help the country, but inflamed the situation and it was not the responsibility of government to diffuse this on its own, but to form partnerships.

As to the current interventions, the Minister said that in Gauteng, land had been identified, and some churches and halls were being occupied by displaced people, with the consent of the churches, who had indicated that they were not pressing for their removal. The Mozambique government had been very cooperative, and when the migrants from Mozambique indicated they wished to go home that government had facilitated their repatriation, even while South Africa was still considering what the consequences of the repatriation would be. The Minister was concerned that the DHA should not be misconstrued as deporting those who were voluntarily seeking repatriation. DHA must not be seen as using the opportunity to identify the vulnerable illegal immigrants, and at this stage those illegal immigrants affected by violence should not be deported. This was not to suggest that illegal immigrants would be condoned altogether, but for those affected by the violence, who had been displaced, their property looted, or their rights violated, DHA would not add to their trauma and further violate their rights with immediate deportation. No one would be arrested from places of safety. In areas where there was no violence, illegal immigrants would be dealt with in the normal course. She was aware of the need not to take advantage of the trauma, and to address the sensitivities, fears and concerns of the public.

In respect of non-Mozambique immigrants, the International Organisation on Migration (IOM) was prepared to assist with repatriation and the government would facilitate contact with IOM. South Africa was not preventing anyone from going home. There had not yet been a figure given for the numbers of refugees who had returned home, but UNHCR was working with the government to prepare for such eventualities. 

There had been offers from a number of doctors to the Minister of Health to assist with refugee health problems, including care of the numerous pregnant women in the shelters. There had been consideration given to setting up a separate shelter for women and children, but the provincial government in Gauteng had received a clear indication that the women preferred to stay with their families. Yesterday Gauteng had been declared a provincial disaster area, and that had been gazetted today. There was a move to do the same In Western Cape. There could not be declaration of a national disaster as the violence was not common to all provinces.

Cabinet was discussing the DHA proposal to investigate the possibility of using the relevant section of the Immigration Act to grant people temporary exemption from arrest and deportation, although this would also involve an identification of the challenges and how to avoid abuse of the procedure. DHA would like to take proactive steps rather than being forced into a situation.

One of the greatest challenges lay around safety and security. There was an agreement to decentralise the temporary shelters as much as possible and to keep them as small as possible, both for ease of management and security. There was a possibility that private security companies might be used for management and to patrol of the areas. She would not wish to go into further details. The Security Cluster had agreed that special courts would be set up, with a dedicated team of detectives to investigate incidents, and already teams were interrogating some of those arrested and cases were being processed, to ensure that this crisis did not create further backlogs in the judicial system.

The Minister had been informed this morning that the numbers at the centres had decreased, as communities were beginning to accept people back, and in some places, the communities had actively called on those displaced to return, and were themselves addressing the violence, much of which had been a copy-cat response to what was happening in other areas. The involvement of communities was critical to counter the xenophobia.

The Minister indicated that there had been meetings with the diplomatic community to brief them on what was happening, and deal with their fears and anxieties, and this regular interaction would continue..

The Minister reiterated that the attacks had, in certain areas, targeted particular groups of foreigners but in Alexandria had targeted Shangaans and Vendas. That was why all facets of xenophobia had to be investigated. Criminal elements could also have decided to “ride on the back” of the xenophobic outbreaks, which had led to violence, rapes and looting. Corruption posed another challenge, as there were allegations that local people given RDP houses had sold them to foreigners as places of business, and were now claiming them back to re-sell. It was important to consider what had happened to the moral fibre of society, and to strive together for find a solution, which must also address the effects of the violence on the youth and address what had gone wrong.

The Minister concluded by saying that the Turnaround Project had a specific project to deal with migration. A backlog project had been set up, and it might be useful for the Director General and herself to present a report. This project was launched in response to the fact that there were then 100 000 backlog applications for asylum seekers, some dating back almost ten years. The target date for clearing the backlog was one year; but now, after two years, it had been found that there were around 60 000 dormant files, where those who had managed to get a Section 22 permit probably knew from the start that they would not qualify for refugee status, but tried to keep themselves in the country by holding an asylum seeker's permit. Numerous and varied attempts were made to contact the permit holders, and the files had now been declared closed. The report would give all the statistics, including rejections and appeals.

Mr P Dithebe (ANC) referred to rumours that in more than one of the incidents the attacks had been preceded by community meetings, and he asked if there was any information on the nature of the meetings, and those who had convened them. He also asked for information on reports that people were being transported from one area to another to attack communities.

The Minister responded that indeed there had been reports of meetings. However, there was not yet a complete picture of what had occurred prior to the violence in Alexandria. It had been alleged that there were meetings held in the hostels, at which issues of crime were discussed, with accusations that foreigners were responsible for the crime. However other allegations suggested that meeting had been held around service delivery and access of foreigners to services. There was a range of issues, allegations and counter-allegations still to be dealt with. The DHA felt that it could not yet formulate an opinion on the causes, and the causes of one or two incidents would not necessarily address all the ramifications. The violence seemed not to have been necessarily sporadic, but coordinated. It was possible that the time of the meetings just happened to coincide with a time when tensions were brewing, but it was impossible, at present, to link the meetings conclusively to the violence.  She had not received any reports of people being transported in, but this was being investigated by the police and intelligence forces.
Ms H Weber (DA) asked whether there were plans to deal with migrants in a different way and if there would be better controls introduced to ensure that more people entered the country legally, or that they were documented as they entered, to give an idea of how many were coming into South Africa.

The Minister stated that, with all the current sensitivities, the issues of xenophobia must be considered separately from the issue of migrants. South Africa's economy had always been dependent on migrant labour, and during the amnesty referred to earlier about 51 000 mine workers, who had formed the backbone of the economy, had benefited. She believed that whilst the policy of deportation could be used as part of the law enforcement, it had its own challenges, including the question of whether it addressed migration. Economic challenges in other countries, as against the relative political and economic stability of South Africa, were one of the main reasons why foreigners would continue to seek greener pastures in South Africa. The main issue was to prevent illegal migration, and provide greater avenues and permits other than work permits for legal migration. Government may well, in the future, have to look at other options. At the moment emotions were running high, and it was not the time to do so. Possible suggestions included issuing temporary residence permits, so that everyone in the country would at least be recorded and fingerprinted, in the interests of security and stability.

Mr M Sikakane (ANC) was pleased to note the statement that there would not be automatic deportations, as also the Minister’s and Task Team’s thorough investigations into all possible causes. He added that in the 1940s attacks on Asiatic groups had been attributed to economic concerns, and he said that poverty and unemployment were, in his opinion, not the root cause, but that jealousy of other people’s success could build hatred.

Ms F Mathibela (ANC) concurred that many of the media reports had shown young people, including those of school age, involved in the violence and she was interested to hear the Minister’s comments on this age group. She asked what would happen to the 60 000 closed files.

Mr W Skosana (ANC) said that there had been reports that some countries were prepared to assist their nationals in claiming compensation from South Africa in respect of their losses, and asked how this would be dealt with.

The Minister said that she had heard such rumours, but was not sure that countries would follow that route, given their good relationship with this government and the fact that the South African government had not anticipated the situation and had no control over it.

Mr C Louw (DA) agreed with the Minister that there was a need for a high level meeting to discuss xenophobia. He asked about the allegations of a third force behind the attacks, enquiring where this idea had emanated, and if there was any proof of it at this stage.

The Minister said that there was presently too little information for her to give a definitive answer. The incidents over the past few weeks had raised questions as to the involvement of criminal elements, sporadic incidents, and counter-revolutionary forces. All possibilities should be raised and investigated in a process of elimination. Civic education at schools should be instilling a spirit of patriotism, and a sense of responsibility for defending the country and democracy. It could not be ruled out that this could have been a well-orchestrated action that undermined what had been achieved so far by riding on the needs and vulnerabilities of people, and the challenges of communities. However, it was too soon to give the answer.

Mr Louw asked if more staff were being deployed to assist in processing the documents of those who had been displaced, whether they could be appointed quickly, and whether the DHA had the capacity, given its other challenges, to deal with this matter.

The Minister said that a directive had already been issued to the Director General to access more staff, but it was up to him to source them and to arrange the details.
Mr Louw asked if there had been contact with the South African Police Services, as on CNN he had seen police officers standing around but apparently not attempting to stop the attacks.

The Minister said that there was regular interaction as SAPS was part of the Task team, with daily interaction, questioning and accountability. Any misconduct of individual officers would be investigated and dealt with.

The Chairperson called again upon Members to raise the challenges and encourage communities in their constituencies to deal positively with the issues. A report would be issued soon from Parliament and would be addressed during the July Summit.

The meeting was adjourned.


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