Mott grantees working to end xenophobia in South Africa

A group of demonstrators walk behind a banner.
Several Mott grantees, including the Umtapo Centre in Durban, are working across the country to combat xenophobia and help communities heal. Photo courtesy of Umtapo Centre

The tragedies and crises born of people being displaced from their homelands are playing out in countries all over the world. Xenophobia, generally defined as intense or irrational dislike or fear of foreigners, is one of many troubling issues countries are grappling with as they consider immigration policies. In South Africa, where xenophobia against people from elsewhere in Africa has contributed to recurring violence for many years, several Charles Stewart Mott Foundation grantees are working to stem the tide of aggression and help communities to heal.

A number of violent attacks rocked the country in April 2015, sparking an international conversation on South Africa’s xenophobia issue and raising a host of questions as to the root causes. Dr. Rama Naidu, director of the Democracy Development Program (DDP), a Mott grantee, says that, in addition to the influx of African immigrants into the country, high levels of local poverty, deteriorating employment opportunities and unclear government policies for integrating foreign nationals are just a few of the other factors contributing to outbreaks of violence.

Last year, Dr. Naidu and his colleagues published the paper, When Xenophobia Rears its Ugly Head, as part of a larger publication from the Good Governance Learning Network. The paper discusses the DDP’s response to the recent violence and calls for local governments to have a stronger role in addressing the root causes and finding solutions.

“Xenophobia is not a new global phenomenon, nor is it unique to South Africa,” explains Naidu. “It is as old as human migration, dating back to early centuries of human existence. We are, nevertheless, extremely concerned that such violent attacks are once again sweeping through our nation.”

In Durban, a large city on the country’s western coast, DDP is sponsoring initiatives that encourage community-building and mutual respect among people of different nationalities. Naidu sees the process as being key to allaying the mistrust and acrimony that often lead to violence. One such effort, the Africa Solidarity Network (ASONET), introduced community-building activities that helped provide insight into local misunderstandings that may have sparked the last xenophobic attacks in Durban and surrounding areas. That insight, in turn, has helped the group formulate strategies to prevent violence.

“Our work as DDP spans a wide range of issues around democratic participation,” said Naidu. “In South Africa, we bring citizens together to share their stories and to begin to engage with other stakeholders to co-create a community that shares common values and ideas by weaving a social fabric that is more sustainable.”

DDP is optimistic that this approach is working. Last spring, in one community with which DDP has a longstanding partnership, citizens rallied to protect foreign nationals who were under threat of attack, rather than joining the violence.

Positive responses and solutions also emerging in smaller communities

In Humansdorp, an Eastern Cape township previously plagued by xenophobic violence, stories have emerged of ordinary people uniting to maintain peace. For example, the Project for Conflict Resolution and Development (PCRD), also a Mott grantee, has joined with local partners to help residents deal with xenophobia-related conflict and create a climate of safety and respect.

Their efforts include encouraging area families to offer their homes as safe places for refugees and migrants to go if they feel threatened. The township now has 50 such “safe houses.” PCRD also launched its “Get to Know Your Neighbor” campaign last spring, which brought together more than 100 people for a march through the town. Participants carried banners and placards calling for an end to xenophobia, and helped engage neighbors and spectators in conversation about addressing the challenges in their community.

“The campaign was not expensive or complex,” said Michael Bendle, co-director of PCRD. “It was simply an exercise to get to know your neighbor and for neighbors, South African and non-South African alike, to know that other people out there really do care.”

While safe houses and marches may seem insufficient to eradicate xenophobic violence in South Africa, advocates hope stories of ordinary people working together to cultivate peace and unity will spark larger efforts nationwide.

Bendle and others note that the issues that have caused violence in the country are unlikely to be resolved in the near term. South Africa is, after all, a young democracy with many citizens still trying to understand their rights in a democratic society. But though the reports of resurgent violence are troubling, and the list of contributing factors difficult to address, Naidu is cautiously optimistic that South Africa can lessen the scourge of xenophobia.

“We have to remember that, because of our apartheid history, parts of South Africa continue to struggle with believing violence is the only means for their voices to be heard. This has to be addressed on a national basis in every community and institution in the country,” Naidu says.

“Programs that address this past trauma have to be better resourced and must take a long-term view of building a sense of community again differently. Such communities must begin to confront the pain of the past and start to live a new story of a common humanity, of non-violence, of engagement with each other.”