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Church Leaders in South Africa Call for National Dialogue to Address Xenophobia

Logo of the South African Council of Churches (SACC). Credit: South African Council of Churches (SACC)

Church leaders in South Africa are calling for a national dialogue to address xenophobic tendencies in the country saying the negative attitude of South Africans towards migrants is perennial.

The call by members of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) who include representatives of Catholic Bishops in South Africa comes in the wake of Operation Dudula, a group that is carrying out a “clean up” campaign under the leadership of the South African National Civic Organization and Community Policing Forum. Members of Operation Dudula target foreign nationals by evicting them from their rented homes and informal trading stalls. 

In a statement published January 21, SACC General Secretary says there have been “murmurings about foreign nationals ‘stealing the jobs’ earmarked for local nationals have been growing in mass for years.” 

“SACC proposes a national Indaba (dialogue) to include all sectors that have an interest in this matter, including the representative bodies of foreign nationals; for all to look into various issues concerning foreign nationals in the country,” Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana says on behalf of SACC members.

The official of the organization that includes representatives of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) says that currently, “there are voice notes doing the rounds giving deadlines for the removal of mainly Africans from elsewhere in the continent; and in Johannesburg there is the much more organized ‘Operation Dudula.’”

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He highlights the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party’s visit to restaurants to see if South Africans are being prioritized in terms of employment and the December go slow by South African truck drivers to protest the employment of foreign nationals over them as some of the incidents that demonstrate discrimination against migrants.  

Bishop Mpumlwana says SACC members are worried by the ongoing harassment of foreign nationals.

“Given the spread of organized groups taking the initiative to accost foreign nationals, whether legal or illegal, as the distinction is hard to verify in the heat of the moment, the SACC is deeply concerned that it would take one misplaced word or act by one or more persons, to tip these murmurings to violence and, God-forbid – death,” he says in the statement dated January 20. 

Bishop Mpumlwana says that since the hostility towards foreigners has a direct impact on South Africans, the matter “urgently” needs a national multi-stakeholder and solution-seeking Indaba.

“The National Indaba on Foreign Nationals will aim to create a fair playing field, and address every area of concern for all affected sectors and communities; and seek solutions, where the rules that apply for one can be applied to all, for the benefit of South Africa and all who live in it,” SACC General Secretary says. 

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At the proposed national dialogue, the SACC official says the stakeholders will be expected to discuss immigration management and the refugee status regime. 

He adds that the stakeholders will also be expected “to consider any research made on the activities attributable to foreign nationals – their presumed role in regular crime and especially organized and syndicated crime like in drugs and human trafficking; their contribution to the national economy and the GDP.”

The stakeholders will also be expected to discuss, Bishop Mpumlwana says, foreign nationals’ “contribution to education, including as university professors; the labor and employment situation regarding foreign nationals – this being one of the triggering points in communities in a high unemployment environment.”

“We need to look at the difference between poor and middle-class immigrants, legal or not; is it a class thing? Are foreigners objectionable when they are poor and in townships, and not so when they are middle class in suburbs, or are white from, say, the Czech Republic?” the church official in South Africa says in the statement published January 21.

He adds that there is need for South Africans to foster “a culture of dialogue that will result in meaningful solutions, which is why this proposed Indaba is a national priority.” 

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“Our tumultuous past had resulted in much deprivation, and an imbalanced competition for jobs, commodities and housing, but stated that the forced and violent removal of foreign nationals would not make a peaceful South Africa,” SACC General Secretary says.

He continues, “We must appeal to all our communities to desist from what ends up as vigilante action in the absence of effective law enforcement. We saw the effect of people taking the law into their own hands in the fatal vigilante actions of Phoenix; whatever the cause, and however well intentioned, nothing stops popular action against a section of the population from becoming ugly and resulting in serious injury and death.”

Last week, SACBC President expressed concern about the “inhumane” manner in which Zimbabweans are being treated in the country since the South African government announced plans to stop the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP) which was implemented in 2017 to regularize the stay of undocumented Zimbabweans. 

Bishop Sithembele Anton Sipuka described the harsh treatment of Zimbabweans living in South Africa as embarrassing.

The Local Ordinary of the Catholic Diocese of Umtata in South Africa who was speaking on the sidelines of the SACBC Plenary Assembly proposed that the issue of migrants in South Africa be addressed at a regional level. 

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“I think we need to engage at the SADC (Southern African Development Community) level or through IMBISA (Inter-Regional Meeting of Bishops of Southern Africa) to see a humane way of dealing with this,” Bishop Sipuka told ACI Africa correspondent in South Africa on January 18.