A wave of anti-foreigner violence in South Africa last year made clear once again that the rainbow nation has a streak of xenophobia.
South Africa, one of Africa’s largest economies, draws people from around the continent fleeing violence and poverty.
While there were major outbreaks of violence against foreigners in 2008 and 2015, refugees and migrants also face daily xenophobic threats, violence and looting, says the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
As anti-migrant and anti-refugee attitudes grow in parts of Europe and the United States, the way that South Africans are trying to tackle xenophobic violence in the country may be instructive.
The ACMS and technology website iAfrikan this month launched a crowdsourcing platform called Xenowatch to address a major challenge in preventing violence – an information black hole.
South African police don’t specifically monitor the location and frequency of anti-foreigner attacks, so it’s hard to establish what’s stoking the violence, says ACMS researcher Alexandra Hiropoulos, who led the Xenowatch project. She has documented the looting of nearly 1,000 foreign-run shops in South Africa already this year.
People can report xenophobic threats or violence to Xenowatch online, by SMS or email. Reports will be verified, anonymized and documented on a map using the Ushahidi platform, as well as shared with the police and the United Nations refugee agency.
Refugees Deeply: When did you first see the need for a platform that crowdsources xenophobic threats and violence in South Africa?
Alexandra Hiropoulos: The large-scale attacks in 2008 brought national and international attention to the issue, yet foreigners and South African citizens have been victimized and discriminated against due to their ethnic, geographic, linguistic or religious backgrounds since at least 1994. Since this type of crime is not officially measured by the South African Police Service, there is no official record of the amount, types and locations of xenophobic violence.
The African Centre for Migration & Society at Wits University has been actively trying to launch a platform to monitor xenophobic threats and violence for the past few years, but has struggled to find funding for the initiative. Now that Xenowatch has been launched, the ACMS is searching for funding to sustain the platform for years to come.
Refugees Deeply: What are the problems with how South African authorities and civil society respond to xenophobic violence?
Hiropoulos: Like much of the global fight against bias – racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia – South African civil society organizations have rooted the source of the problem in psychology and competition for goods and space. Their interventions have followed suit with large-scale efforts to “re-educate” the population toward tolerance or eliminate the sources of economic competition. Such efforts may be noble, but many have been ill-informed and ineffective.
As our concern is with violence per se, this intervention is targeted particularly at the politics that helps instill negative attitudes and translate them into brutal exclusion. In short, hatred and negativity are almost everywhere. Violence is not. This platform helps us to identify the sources of violence, build the mechanisms to protect those at risk and prevent others from facing threats and attacks.
There are multiple issues with government response. Many initiatives are well-meaning but treat the sources of violence as if they are rooted in ideas and not political interests. Others are half-hearted or not interested in countering political allies at the local level, some of whom are behind the violence. At the very least we need to shift the incentives toward peace.
Refugees Deeply: How can information help?
Hiropoulos: While many of government’s failures stem from a lack of political will, civil society responses have wanted for insight into the specific causes and triggers of violence in the locations where it occurs. Previous research conducted by the African Centre for Migration & Society shows that while there are often common enabling factors, there are also important variations across sites in which violence occurs.
Refugees Deeply: How will information collected by Xenowatch be used to prevent violence and hold the government accountable?
Hiropoulos: The ACMS and iAfrikan have a data collection and dissemination role, rather than direct, targeted interventions or advocacy, for which we rely on our partners in government and civil society. We are working with the South African Local Government Association to have data from Xenowatch be included in the scorecards they use for evaluating local political performance. Data on persistent violence can be used by advocacy NGOs and opposition parties to push for a change in officeholders’ actions or in the officeholders themselves.
Local government officials, the police, policymakers and civil society organizations need to understand variations in xenophobic violence not only to respond appropriately to the current conflict, but also to address the root causes of area-specific social tensions in a more sustainable manner.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.