UNHCR supports efforts to counter xenophobia in South Africa

News Stories, 30 April 2009

© UNHCR/P.Rulashe
UNHCR and human rights organizations undertake community outreach initiatives to address xenophobia in South Africa.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, April 30 (UNHCR) Haunted by a wave of xenophobic violence that forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes in South Africa last year, the UN refugee agency is supporting efforts to combat the scourge.

Tension between South Africans and foreigners mainly Africans, and including refugees and asylum seekers had been simmering in deprived city areas before erupting into violence in May last year, causing some 45,000 people to flee their homes and leaving 62 people dead, according to government figures.

The situation has calmed down considerably since then, but fears remain of fresh violence amid the continuing economic depression. The government and independent humanitarian organizations, such as the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF), are doing all they can to ease tension, eradicate xenophobia and move the country forward.

The NMF promotes the principles of its founder and namesake, South Africa's first black president and a champion of reconciliation and non-violence. The 90-year-old Mandela has retired from the helm, but his foundation continues to promote and facilitate dialogue.

Its focus this year is on xenophobia and the organization has launched up a two-year strategy to help promote peaceful co-existence between South Africans and foreigners and to look at the root causes of last year's violence.

The NMF has invited UNHCR, which has long opposed xenophobic behaviour in South Africa, to sit on its steering committee and help implement the plan.

UNHCR will also provide financial and technical support. The Foundation has also consulted with government institutions and other human rights organizations.

Achmat Dangor, chief executive of the Foundation, set the tone for the anti-xenophobia campaign when he addressed a recent NFM meeting on the issue with partners. "Individuals of Mandela's stature did not change the world on their own. Mandela's entire life has been based upon dialogue, the art of listening to others and getting others to listen and speak to each other."

South Africa has been too slow in the past to use dialogue to tackle xenophobia, but NMF hopes to help redress the situation by facilitating and encouraging meaningful conversations between all relevant stakeholders.

Under its two-year programme, the NMF will promote social cohesion by arranging meetings in a safe place where people living in mixed nationality communities can come together to discuss the challenges they face while at the same time looking for sustainable solutions.

The NMF will facilitate 30 such dialogues in five provinces, targeting areas worst affected by xenophobia, such as Alexandra Township in Johannesburg and Langa Township in Cape Town.

"Initiatives of this nature are to be welcomed," said UNHCR Regional Representative Sanda Kimbimbi. "We will certainly play our part to ensure that the NMF and other credible institutions achieve our collective goal of combatting xenophobic tendencies."

By Pumla Rulashe
In Johannesburg, South Africa