JOHANNESBURG, Apr 17 (IPS) - In May 2008, South Africa was rocked by the worst xenophobic attacks that the country has ever seen. Less than a year later, the issue is almost invisible from the national election campaign.
South Africa has long been troubled by xenophobia, but the 2008 attacks were the a significant escalation. Sixty-two foreigners were killed and tens of thousands of others fled their homes. The attacks which started in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra spread like fire throughout the country.
The Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg has given shelter to migrants from other parts of Africa for many years. Presently about 3,500 refugees stay there. The place is overcrowded with five to six families living in one room with their children. But for Peter Justice, a Zimbabwean teacher who now works as a security guard, this is the only place where he feels safe after experiencing xenophobic violence.
"When I [first came to South Africa] I worked under a construction company. We were attacked there. The Zulus couldn't accept us as colleagues," he says. "We were forced to leave. I feel very insecure. I only feel happy when I'm in this church."
Winnie Sarona came to South Africa to look for a job to support her six children but those dreams were shattered when she arrived in the country. The violation of her human rights and those of her fellow citizens changed her perception of South Africa. She struggled to get treatment at Johannesburg hospital, her only sin was being unable to speak local languages.
"Each time we go to a hospital, the way we foreigners are treated is quite an awesome thing. I was in a hospital, I tried to explain my condition to the nurses there but they would tell you, 'I don't understand English.'
Sarona continued: "Right now we've got more than ten babies who were born in the toilet here. The mothers, we take them to the hospital but once [the staff there] realise she is a foreigner, they are treated so badly. 'Go! Come back when the water has broken.' But what if there are complications when one is giving birth in a toilet... simply because we are foreigners."
South Africa will be holding national elections on Apr. 22, but despite these experiences and xenophobia being one of the major challenges facing the country, it seems that no political party dares to touch the subject in their manifestos.
James Lorimer, the spokesperson for the official opposition Democratic Alliance, says his party's manifesto is addressing the issue.
"Well it is certainly dealt with in our policies for example our policies on citizenship and immigration and home affairs."
However Tara Polzer, a senior researcher with the Forced Migration Studies programme at Wits University feels that not enough is being done by political parties.
"Xenophobia is seen as a minority issue and something that pertains to few people in the country, but I think that is a very wrong understanding. It is really a pity that political parties have not used this opportunity of an election time to campaign on the basis of basic dignity and respect of human rights. We certainly hope that after the election whoever takes over powerful positions at local, provincial and national level will take on this challenge."
IPS asked the DA's Lorimer if he feels enough is being done to ensure that xenophobia is addressed in this country.
"We mention it. That's the power that we have: to highlight these things in the media and we highlight them and when the media reports them that's great. Often the media don't report them and then people say, 'What are you doing?' As an opposition party our real power is to highlight issues and no more. Unless we run the government we can't do anything more than that."
Efforts to get comment from the ruling African National Congress were unsuccessful. IPS managed to track down Joseph Mahajane, the acting director of communications for the Department of Home Affairs.
"We as home affairs are responsible for issuing IDs, giving permits, but as to what happens after a refugee has been given a permit, it's actually out of our mandate. Our mandate is just to document and keep status of people who are in the country. Once you are out of the door of Home Affairs with your refugee permit in your hands, our work is done. So what we are saying is go and integrate."
One way to address the deep wounds the May 2008 xenophobic attacks left for migrants and citizens alike could be prosecution of those involved in the attacks, but the government does not appear to have made that a priority.
According to the National Prosecuting Authority 1,627 people were arrested in connection with the violence, but out of the 469 cases opened, only 105 cases have been finalised. Seventy people have been found guilty of various offences; 208 cases have been withdrawn, mainly because of the lack of evidence.
For refugees like Godfrey Charamba, this amounts to nothing. "The police did nothing. When those people were arrested, they were being charged with minor cases like common assault, grievous bodily harm, public violence... instead of these people to be charged with attempting murder and murder. And their cases have been swept under the carpet."
Apart from being discriminated against by ordinary South Africans on the street, refugees are not safe from people in authority. Police often harass refugees, arresting and releasing them without any charges. Employers frequently exploit them by paying below minimum wage, knowing they are unlikely to appeal to labour tribunal. Meanwhile getting proper papers from the Department of Home Affairs is a nightmare for refugees, especially for those who are unwilling to pay a bribe.
Lack of support and a clear and firm re-integration process from South African government has allowed xenophobic tendencies to continue with under-reported violent attacks, robberies and violation of refugees human rights continuing in different parts of the country.
A newly-elected government would do well to ensure that migrants fleeing armed conflicts or political or economic hardship in other parts of the continent have their rights protected as spelled out in South Africa's constitution.
Read more at Inter Press Service.