Using football to tackle xenophobia in South Africa's townships

News Stories, 9 June 2010

© UNHCR/P.Rulashe
The Randfontein skipper holds the Township Soccer Challenge cup.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, June 9 (UNHCR) With the World Cup finals looming, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) turned to football to tackle the lingering problem of xenophobia in South Africa's townships.

The partner organizations, together with the Africa Diaspora Forum, have just staged a pilot Township Soccer Challenge. The initiative began in May and culminated last Saturday in Mohlakeng, when Randfontein beat Tembisa 5-0 to earn bragging rights to being the best township team in Gauteng Province.

They also won 20,000 rand (US$2,600) to share among the players and 80,000 rand for a community project in Randfontein, a township located to the west of Johannesburg and once famed for its gold mines.

But perhaps the greatest prize for the organizers, spectators and players, including refugees and foreign migrants, was the chance to bridge racial divisions and set an example of solidarity and tolerance to the rest of the country.

There was no sign of the rancour and xenophobia that tore through several South African townships in May 2008, leaving several dozen people dead and forcing thousands of foreigners, including refugees and asylum-seekers, to flee their homes.

The government is determined to avoid a repeat of such scenes when the world's attention is on South Africa during the month-long World Cup football finals, which begin this Friday with a match between the hosts and Mexico in Johannesburg's new Soccer City Stadium.

South African S'busiso Peterson was among those who took part in the pioneering township challenge. The 22-year-old lives in Tembisa, one of the 10 teams taking part in the inaugural event, which UNHCR hopes to replicate in other provinces in the future.

Tembisa was among the townships affected by the violence of two years ago. One reason for the xenophobia was the anger felt by some of the poorest South Africans about the lack of employment opportunities and access to services such as housing, water and sanitation.

"I was so embarrassed by what happened and that is why it is my duty to speak out against xenophobia through what I love doing playing soccer," the aspiring professional player stressed.

Peterson, who plays for Tembisa, has since reached out to refugees and other foreigners who have returned to the township. Through a common love for football, he was able to bond with people from countries such as Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.

Oko Ashiteng also plays for Tembisa, but he is a Ghanaian and was reluctant to settle in Tembisa after arriving in South Africa last year. "I'd heard a lot about what happened in May 2008 and friends in the Ghanaian community discouraged me from taking up residence in a township," the 18-year-old explained.

But he decided to ignore their advice, in part because he wanted to "play soccer in a place where I would get the opportunity to learn and befriend the locals in their environment. I decided to take the chance and I'm glad I did." Both Peterson and Ashiteng played for Tembisa in the recent Challenge, where they reached the final.

Although the situation has improved considerably since May 2008, intolerance, racism and xenophobia remain serious problems in South Africa. In recent weeks, for instance, property owned by refugees and other foreigners was looted and vandalized during protests about services in the provinces of Gauteng, Mpumalanga and the Free State.

Some people, including Ashiteng, fear xenophobia could rear its ugly ahead again after the World Cup, which ends on July 11. His friend Peterson was more sanguine. "I can't imagine it happening again. We won't allow it," he insisted.

Initiatives like the township challenge can play an important role in preventing such a recurrence and in building bridges between the different communities. "I couldn't tell the difference between a foreigner and a South African. All I saw were people playing well together,' said one young spectator.

By Pumla Rulashe in Johannesburg, South Africa

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

Advocacy

Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

South Africa is one of the few countries in Africa where registered refugees and asylum-seekers can legally move about freely, access social services and compete with locals for jobs.

But while these right are enshrined in law, in practice they are sometimes ignored and refugees and asylum-seekers often find themselves turned away by employers or competing with the poorest locals for the worst jobs - especially in the last few years, as millions have fled political and economic woes in countries like Zimbabwe. The global economic downturn has not helped.

Over the last decade, when times turned tough, refugees in towns and cities sometimes became the target of the frustrations of locals. In May 2008, xenophobic violence erupted in Johannesburg and quickly spread to other parts of the country, killing more than 60 people and displacing about 100,000 others.

In Atteridgeville, on the edge of the capital city of Pretoria - and site of some of the worst violence - South African and Somali traders, assisted by UNHCR, negotiated a detailed agreement to settle the original trade dispute that led to the torching of Somali-run shops. The UN refugee agency also supports work by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to counter xenophobia.

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

South Africa's Invisible People

In March 2011, UNHCR initiated a project with the South African non-governmental organization, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), to tackle the issue of statelessness. The specific goals of the project were to provide direct legal services to stateless people and those at risk of statelessness; to engage government on the need for legal reform to prevent and reduce statelessness; to raise awareness about stateless people and their rights; and to advocate for the ratification of the 1954 and 1961 UN conventions on statelessness.

LHR had conceived the project a year earlier after noticing that large numbers of Zimbabwean-born asylum-seekers were telling its staff that they faced problems getting jobs, studying or setting up businesses - all allowed under South African law. They told LHR that when they applied for Zimbabwean passports, necessary to access these rights, they were informed by consular officials that they were no longer recognized as Zimbabwean citizens. This effectively made them stateless.

Since the project's inception, LHR has reached more than 2,000 people who are stateless or at risk of statelessness. These people came from more than 20 different countries. It has identified numerous categories of concern in South Africa, both migrants and those born in the country.

The following photo set portrays some of the people who have been, or are being, helped by the project. The portraits were taken by photographer Daniel Boshoff. Some of the subjects asked that their names be changed.

South Africa's Invisible People

From Nairobi to Osh, Bishkek to Mexico City, refugees celebrate World Refugee Day 2009.

June 20, 2009. Refugees, aid workers and other well -wishers turned out all around the world to recognize the 42 million people displaced by conflict and persecution on World Refugee Day. From a traditional bamboo dance in India to a football match between Somalis and Iraqis in Syria, the celebrations were testimony to the enduring spirit of some of the most vulnerable people on earth.

From Nairobi to Osh, Bishkek to Mexico City, refugees celebrate World Refugee Day 2009.

Lebanon: Keep on PlayingPlay video

Lebanon: Keep on Playing

A Syrian refugee, once a national player, revives his dream of playing and coaching football.
Khaled Hosseini - No one chooses to be a refugeePlay video

Khaled Hosseini - No one chooses to be a refugee

UNHCR's 2012 World Refugee Day global social advocacy campaign, "Dilemmas", aims to help fight intolerance and xenophobia against refugees. UNHCR Goodwill Envoy Khaled Hosseini and a host of other celebrities echo the same strong message: No one chooses to be a refugee.
Juanes - No one chooses to be a refugeePlay video

Juanes - No one chooses to be a refugee

UNHCR's 2012 World Refugee Day global social advocacy campaign, "Dilemmas", aims to help fight intolerance and xenophobia against refugees. UNHCR supporter Juanes and a host of other celebrities echo the same strong message: No one chooses to be a refugee.