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Protestors demonstrate in front of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) against xenophobia and vigilantism in the country, Johannesburg, during Africa Day, May 25, 2022. © 2022 MICHELE SPATARI/AFP via Getty Images

(Johannesburg) – Candidates in South Africa’s forthcoming general elections have been scapegoating and demonizing foreign nationals, risking stoking xenophobic violence, Human Rights Watch said today.

On May 29, 2024, South Africa will hold general elections for the national and provincial legislatures. Among the campaign themes that have taken center stage is migration, in particular irregular migration, which is often accompanied by harmful and threatening rhetoric. While irregular migration has been a long-standing issue in South Africa, discourse around it has become more polemic as the country approaches the most contested elections since 1994.

“Politicians are using immigrants as pawns, without regard for their safety in an attempt to score votes ahead of the general elections,” said Nomathamsanqa Masiko-Mpaka, South Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, “The Electoral Commission of South Africa, as an independent constitutional body which manages free and fair elections, should explicitly condemn the harmful rhetoric directed towards foreign nationals.”

The authorities should enforce the electoral code of conduct to address harmful anti-immigrant rhetoric by government officials and candidates who are not only addressing legitimate issues of border control and irregular migration, but are making foreign nationals targets of abuse.

Candidates are pushing a narrative not just that migration is out of control, but blaming undocumented migrants for the country’s ills and engaging in xenophobia, Human Rights Watch said. South Africa’s electoral code of conduct, which every candidate is required to abide by, prohibits language that provokes violence and requires candidates to speak out against political violence. In a country where xenophobic violence, including lethal violence, has been a persistent problem, rhetoric that scapegoats foreign nationals can all too easily spark violence.

In one example, the party, Rise Mzansi, in its January 20 manifesto, said it would “fix the asylum seeker system: stop its use as a de facto permit for economic migrants,” feeding into the narrative of bogus asylum seekers.

Herman Mashaba, leader of ActionSA, in a tweet in December 2023 stated that foreign nationals who run tuckshops use their businesses as illicit drug channels, destroying small businesses in townships and villages, and disrupting communities’ way of life.  

On November 26, 2023, the leader of the Patriotic Alliance, Gayton McKenzie while speaking at the political party's 10-year celebration said of foreign nationals: “they must go home” contending that foreign nationals are responsible for crime, drug peddling, unemployment, and other problems. “We don’t want illegal foreigners here.” 

Lesego More of the nongovernmental group, Democracy Watch Foundation, said that, “When you encourage communities to directly confront illegal immigration, this might result in violence and attacking illegal migrants.”

Government officials have also been stoking anti-immigration sentiment. Kenny Kunene, the deputy president of the Patriotic Alliance political party and the Johannesburg city member of the Mayoral Committee for Transport called for the “mass deportation of illegal immigrants who are staying in abandoned buildings that are taking rent” following an August 2023 fire in a building in Johannesburg’s central business district that killed more than 70 people. In the wake of the tragedy, many South Africans blamed foreign nationals, with some claiming that eviction laws protect criminals by making it difficult to remove people who are occupying buildings without authorization.

On April 10, the Cabinet approved a Department of Home Affairs (DHA) White Paper on Citizenship, Immigration and Refugee Protection with recommendations including withdrawing from the 1951 Refugee Convention and reacceding to it with reservations. The DHA minister, Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi, also said that limited resources might affect guaranteeing socio-economic rights to refugees, suggesting that long-established rights enshrined in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights as applicable to all, are now at risk.

“Migration issues are clearly being used to circumvent the real issues that are present in South Africa” Nyeleti Baloyi, advocacy officer at the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, told Human Rights Watch.

For years South Africa has been grappling with sporadic and sometimes lethal xenophobic harassment and violence against African and Asian foreign nationals living in the country, including refugees, asylum seekers, and both documented and undocumented migrants.  In 2019, South Africa initiated a five-year National Action Plan to combat xenophobia, racism, and discrimination. Despite this, sporadic incidents of xenophobic discrimination and violence have continued.

Xenowatch reported 170 incidents in 2022 and 2023 and 18 between January and April 2024. The authorities have yet to hold to account people responsible for past outbreaks of xenophobic violence, including in Durban in 2015 and the 2008 attacks on foreigners that resulted in the deaths of more than 60 people.

The anti-immigrant rhetoric used by politicians during the election campaign risks fueling more xenophobic violence, jeopardizing the protections in the South African constitution and international law, not only for foreign nationals but for South African citizens, Human Rights Watch said.

“If South Africa is to confront xenophobic discrimination, harassment and attacks, then it also needs to address anti-immigrant rhetoric and abandon retrogressive migration policies,” Masiko-Mpaka said. “The government can address irregular migration without using electioneering to endanger foreign nationals.” 

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