‘An eye for an eye makes the world blind’ – FEDUP/ ISN say NO to Xenophobia

Authored by SA SDI Alliance

Following the outbreak of xenophobic violence in Gauteng in April 2015, the Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (FEDUP) and the Informal Settlement Network (ISN) – both members of the SA SDI Alliance – hosted a dialogue on 24 – 25 April 2015 to say NO to Xenophobia.

“When Xenophobia broke out the Catholic Church approached ISN & FEDUP for support because people were fleeing their homes. We decided on a dialogue because we realised that there was a problem on the ground.“

(Sipho Vanga, ISN Coordinator in Gauteng)

ISN facilitators in Holomisa settlement, Gauteng (2014). Sipho Vanga (third from left)

ISN facilitators in Holomisa settlement, Gauteng (2014). Sipho Vanga (third from left)

The dialogue was titled, ‘Is it really xenophobia or violent protest?’ It brought together 32 informal settlement leaders from Johannesburg (COJ) and Ekurhuleni Municipalities (EMM) in Gauteng Province. Represented settlements included Sicelo, Slovo Park, Delport, Marathon, Makause, Ramaphosa, Holomisa (COJ), Holomisa (EMM), Mandela, Kanana Park, Meriting, Denver, Zacharia Park, Siphamandla, Tinasonke and Thembakhoza. In a press release statement, FEDUP & ISN explained,

“In order to try and avoid violent protest and xenophobic acts we will host a series of dialogues with the leadership of informal settlements AND those affected by xenophobia to discuss social ills with the aim to facilitate the integration of affected people back into our communities.

(ISN/FEDUP Press Release)

The program spread over two days and sought to find a common understanding of xenophobia and its causes in South Africa and to propose possible solutions to stop violence and discrimination. Topics of discussion included:

  • Xenophobia
  • Unemployment
  • Social Stereo Typing
  • Crime
  • Gender
  • Water & Sanitation
  • Upgrading
  • Land Tenure
  • Youth
  • Poverty

Day 1: Dialogue on Xenophobia’s Causes and Challenges

The first day engaged Gauteng’s informal settlement leaders who gave voice to their communities’ grievances, perceptions and concerns. Leaders shared first-hand experience of xenophobic violence, their respective perceptions of root causes and avenues of response.


As community leaders spoke about experiences and community perceptions in their settlements they highlighted some perceived frustrations relating to:

  • Crime

“Illegal immigrants commit crimes and cannot be identified because their finger prints are not in the system”

  • Lack of employment

“Capitalists employ foreigners over locals because foreigners are willing to work harder and earn below the minimum wage.”

“Foreigners operate … businesses without licences because they can afford to bribe… authorities that approach them.”

“South Africans cannot compete with foreigners who are in a position of purchasing bulk commodities that automatically reduce purchase prices.”

  • Drugs & Poverty

“Foreigner mostly bring in and deal drugs that make a huge contribution to the poverty cycle.”

  • Low service provision and development

“The government uses foreigners as an excuse to not develop a number of areas. Yet when foreigners are displaced from communities, it is the government that advocates for their re-integration.”

Dialogue participants explained that jealousy drives locals as they perceive themselves as unable to compete with skills, knowledge and experience brought into the country by foreigners. For leaders this easy influx was connected to poorly protected borders. As “government only listens when communities take extreme measures” leaders explained that xenophobia was a new discovery by South Africans to ensure that their voices are heard and to catalyse service delivery. Some leaders criticised government for using informal settlements as “refugee camps”. They attributed the lack of service delivery to government’s reluctance to undertake upgrading in settlements that are home to foreign nationals.

“It is crystal clear that informal settlement residents are ignored and side-lined by government at all levels. Government has failed us completely in all areas of service delivery. Yet, we are always trying our level best, no matter what, to meet, plan and partner with government AND we will never stop trying!”

(FEDUP-ISN Press Release)

As the discussion unfolded, leaders analysed the matter in terms of their own context and role within it, recognising that “maintaining peace should start with leaders themselves”. They acknowledged that foreigners did not invade their communities but mostly settled through negotiation with respective community leaders while others rented from South Africans. Despite initially expressed frustration, participants concluded that “an eye for an eye only makes the world blind” and adopted a stance of saying “NO TO XENOPHOBIA”.

Day 2: Supporting the Displaced

Day two’s discussions included members of the police, business forums, perpetrators and affected people. Those affected explained that they had come to South Africa to improve their lives and not to sell drugs. Participants agreed that community members would help each other to communicate openly about illegal activity.


Leaders furthermore agreed that no further violence should be experienced. They recommended that illegal immigrants try return to their home countries and apply for relevant travel documents. A further recommendation related to the need for consultative public engagements (between communities and relevant government officials) on integration plans for legal immigrants.

Dialogue participants had previously expressed a growing concern with government’s limited interest in engaging relevant community structures to identify the root causes of xenophobic violence in order to find ways of ameliorating it through community-led processes. Leaders decided that going forward, ISN & FEDUP should facilitate engagements with local authorities and jointly advocate for peace and integration in communities. Community leaders would draft a Memorandum detailing the grievances.

“We are apologetic for what happened in the country. That is why we held dialogues. ISN and FEDUP play an important role: we are not going to sit and watch xenophobia happen. Some foreigners – like our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe – belong to SDI [Shack Dwellers International), just like us. The solution is to create space for leaders to engage in dialogue. ISN&FEDUP should pressure government to deliver and CORC should be the middle man between us.”

(Sipho Vanga, ISN Co-ordinator Gauteng)

Outlook: Negotiation not Violence

For ISN National Co-ordinator, Mzwanele Zulu,

“The root cause of xenophobia is apartheid. It is something we can’t run away from – discrimination and apartheid realities are still present: people live in conditions where there is no transformation. There has been human rights transformation and perhaps some psychological transformation but no change in living conditions. Political, social and economic issues – especially the high unemployment rate – affect people and cause high levels of frustration.”

Mzwanele Zulu, National ISN Coordinator

Mzwanele Zulu, National ISN Coordinator

When cities act as engines of economic growth based on neo-liberal policies and programs they result in more inequality and poverty. Access to serviced, well-located land becomes increasingly difficult, as urban land markets are exclusionary by nature. More people are forced to access land informally and experience diminished opportunities to access employment, health, education, basic services and housing. In addition people experience diminished levels of political and administrative accountability. It is in this particular political and economic context in which informal settlement communities are trying to make sense of the chaos, their inequality and poverty.

“To address issues relating to informal settlement upgrading, urban poverty and development, the state needs CBOs, social movements and NGOs to work with. The same applies to xenophobia. We need drastic contributions from the state in terms of human and financial support. But the state’s response needs to be exercised through partnership with local channels.”

(Mzwanele Zulu, ISN National Co-ordinator)

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