Authorities in South Africa should urgently investigate, and arrest and prosecute those responsible for a spate of violence against foreign nationals in Durban from March 25 to April 2, 2019, the South Africa-based African Diaspora Forum and Human Rights Watch said today.

Violence against foreign nationals appears to be on the rise amid political tensions in the lead-up to national elections scheduled for May 8.

“Apart from its call for an end to attacks on foreign nationals, the South African government has done little to ensure the arrest and prosecution of those responsible,” said Vusumuzi Sibanda, chairperson at the African Diaspora Forum.

“Strong action is needed to show there are consequences for such acts before there is another round of violence against vulnerable foreign nationals.”

On March 25, South Africa issued its five-year National Action Plan to combat xenophobia, racism, and discrimination. The same day, violence by South Africans against foreign nationals erupted in the eastern eThekwini municipality, one of South Africa’s most heavily populated areas, which includes the city of Durban and surrounding towns.

Over the following days, violence occurred in Durban in the Burnwood Informal Settlement (Municipal wards 25 and 26), near the Durban dock yards at South Coast and Maydon Wharf roads, in Durban’s Springfield neighborhood, and in Durban’s Philani neighborhood.

The police have yet to make any arrests following these attacks, in which some foreign nationals were killed and several others seriously injured. Hundreds of foreign nationals sought shelter at police stations or other places, as their homes, trucks, and other belongings were looted or destroyed.

The African Diaspora Forum and Human Rights Watch findings are based on interviews in Durban from March 30 to April 1, 2019 with 35 people, including displaced Malawian families, foreign truck drivers, and other witnesses. Researchers also interviewed the eThekwini Municipality, Mayor Zandile Gumede; her deputy, Fawzia Peer; members of the Community Policing Forum (a platform of police representatives and people from different communities, established in terms of the law, to discuss safety problems in communities and enhance police accountability); local activists; representatives of the Malawi High Commission; and members of the eThekwini Municipality Disaster Management team.

In one incident in the afternoon of March 25, a group of South African truck drivers and other locals protesting the employment of foreign truck drivers blocked the South Coast Road near Durban’s dock yards, pulled foreign drivers from their trucks, took the truck keys, and beat the drivers. Tinei Takawira, a driver, said he was stabbed as the police looked on, without apprehending the attackers or helping him get medical care.

South Africa’s National Action Plan defines xenophobia as an attitudinal orientation of hostility against non-nationals in a given population.

Gumede told Human Rights Watch on April 1 that her team had led a process to reintegrate Malawians back into the Burnwood Informal settlement, following the March 26 incidents.

However, no one has been arrested or prosecuted for the attacks on foreign nationals. It remains unclear what safety and protection systems are in place for the Malawians returning to the community.

According to representatives of the Malawi High Commission managing the Sherwood Hall camp site, 88 Malawians camped at Sherwood Hall asked to be repatriated to Malawi as they felt unsafe returning to the community.

In a statement on March 28, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it had received reports of at least six foreign nationals killed and several others severely injured in the Durban area between March 25 and 27, as mobs armed with metal rods and machetes broke into the homes of foreigners to chase them away and loot their belongings. Human Rights Watch and the Africa Diaspora Forum are working to verify the exact circumstances of these reported deaths.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) special rapporteur for South Africa, Solomon Ayele Dersso, issued a statement on April 2 calling on the South African government to “ensure that the acts of xenophobic attacks are duly investigated and that persons who incited and perpetrated the attacks are brought to justice to end the lack of accountability that feeds the cycle of xenophobic attacks.”

South Africa has brought virtually no one to justice for past outbreaks of xenophobic violence, including in Durban in April 2015, when thousands of foreign nationals were displaced, and attacks on foreigners in 2008, which resulted in the deaths of more than 60 people across the country. This impunity for xenophobic crimes remains a key challenge that needs to be urgently addressed, the two groups said.

The South African government should publicly set out specific, concrete steps it is going to take to provide accountability. It should make clear what steps it is taking to guarantee the safety of non-nationals living in South Africa, particularly migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, and to protect their human rights and freedoms.

As South Africa prepares for national elections, political parties, politicians, community leaders, and individuals should refrain from statements that fuel division and incite violence against non-nationals or promote discrimination.

Statements – such as those made by President Cyril Ramaphosa at an African National Congress (ANC) rally earlier in March, when he blamed undocumented migrants for problems and promised a crackdown – are inflammatory as they scapegoat migrants and feed anti-foreigner violence. The president should set a much better example.

“Re-integration of foreign nationals into communities without justice and accountability for past xenophobic attacks is a recipe for disaster,” said Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “To deter those who attack foreign nationals, there is an urgent need for effective policing, arrests, and prosecutions.”