A Conflict Systems Perspective on Xenophobic Violence

epa04716107 Foreign nationals and members of various South African civil society groups take part in an anti-xenophobia march through Cape Town, South Africa, 22 April 2015. The South African Defence Force has been deployed to hotspots in the country following weeks of xenophobic violence which has displaced thousands and left nine dead. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

The conflict transformation work of the ACTION Support Centre focuses on reducing levels of xenophobic sentiment and the violence it fuels. This focus emerged out of solidarity work with Zimbabwean and Somali communities and intensified following the wave of migration out of Zimbabwe in the wake of Operation Murambatsvina and the election violence of 2008.

ACTION is working with communities in and around Gauteng, Limpopo and KZN to support and strengthen local forms of organisation that bring migrants and locals together to share information and analysis. Committed activists implement long-term, proactive, local strategies that build resilience and facilitate critical action-focused dialogues.

Local organisations use a conflict systems lens to analyse the context out of which xenophobic violence emerges. Conflict systems thinking helps to understand the nature of the dynamics we are engaging with and to design strategic and tactical forms of response that prevent violence, transform conflict and generate learning.

Each local context contains its own unique dynamics. Access to housing, the presence of hostels, historical community relations, the effectiveness and accessibility of local government and the level of service delivery all play a role. But none of these alone explain why xenophobic sentiment becomes violent.

Systems thinking recognises that a complex set of dynamic interconnected factors work together to provide the fuel out of which the flames of xenophobic violence emerge. There is no single root cause of xenophobia in South Africa, nor any single institution that is to blame.

While leadership at every level need to be aware of the way they inflame tensions, or build greater cohesion, it is not the anti-foreigner, tribal or racist statements of leadership that create xenophobia. Scapegoating government as the culprit and demanding that it address xenophobia is not the most effective way to change things.

Xenophobic violence is embedded in the structural violence of poverty, inequality and unemployment. The South African economy has a dehumanising effect. It alienates, excludes and marginalises people, especially many that are black and poor. A legitimate, often unconscious fear, of further marginalisation, plays into the dynamics of xenophobia. The daily discrimination and racism faced by people with no money, both migrants and locals, undermines our common humanity and makes violence part of life.

The structural violence of the South African social economy is exacerbated by a culture of institutional and communal violence, inherited from the past and continued into the present. We live in a violent society that goes much deeper than violence against migrants, and life is cheap because of our past and the present way the system works.

Xenophobia and racism are part of the same social pathology. The social identity-based ranking system, that South Africans know all too well, normalises and encourages xenophobic thinking. With its roots in both racism and xenophobia, and linked to our colonial and apartheid history, we all have an inherent social sense of where we stand in society, and where we are supposed to stand. The way patriarchy tells us who we are supposed to be is part of the same ranking system.

Labelling, stigma, bias and prejudice along identity lines, at individual and institutional levels, feeds into and exacerbates this driver of in-group superiority, victim thinking, and entitlement. Ethnic, tribal, religious, class and language conflicts are all linked to this underlying conflict driver, including xenophobia.

But often xenophobia is also driven by criminal actions initiated by local business interests. Intent on driving away competition at local level South African local business owners have been provoking violence and manipulating communities. Working in combination with populist political leaders the mobilisation of people to action is often incorrectly reported as a spontaneous outpouring of frustration and hatred.

This type of criminal activity is enabled by the South African Police Services. While there are some examples of an excellent police service protecting vulnerable communities the conduct of the SAPS often disregards the rule of law and inculcates a culture of impunity for violence carried out against those labelled as ‘foreigners’. The implementation of Operation Fiela has played a significant role in stigmatising migrants. There are also serious concerns about the level of deportations and the harassment of migrants, and the attitudes and behaviours these actions encourage.

South Africa is now home to between 1.6 and 3.4 Million people who were born outside of the country. This represents between 2 and 6 percent of the population. Migrants are part of communities across the length and breadth of South Africa, but there are not as many as the rumours would have us believe. The ability of South Africans to absorb and integrate people into their communities should be more deeply acknowledged and appreciated. The resilient forms of organisation that are being built require the recognition and support of stakeholders at every level.

The Reports of the Kwa Zulu Natal Special Committee on Social Cohesion and the Special Reference Group on Migration and Community Integration, that were carried out to explore and understand the violence of 2015, are extensive and well researched. These reports outline the multiplicity of factors that contribute to violence, and highlight the way local business interests and political opportunism take advantage of these conditions to drive agendas that advance personal interest.

The reports also highlight the way perceptions and misperceptions enable rumors to spread and negative attitudes to flourish. The media has a clear choice to make between disseminating information, raising awareness and creating vigilance or spreading exaggerated claims, and contributing to fear and panic. Social media users face similar choices on what to share and like and how they respond to racist and xenophobic statements. Similarly, political leadership must acknowledge the impact of statements that are made.

A set of 14 clear recommendations in the report call for a collective systems response to xenophobia that places equal responsibility for xenophobic violence on all stakeholders. The integrated nature of the recommendations appropriately includes a role for stakeholders at community, provincial and national levels.

Provincial and National Government, working through the Inter-Governmental Committee on Migration, the media, civil society stakeholders and local government, working in cooperative partnerships with diaspora organisations and local community based structures, all have a role to play. There is no quick fix solution or easy option. Shared responsibility and collective action are both essential for an effective response.

Richard Melville Smith is a conflict transformation practitioner and political analyst associated with the ACTION Support Centre, the Southern African Liaison Office and the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies