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June 06, 2013

Obama Should Offer Support to South African Hate Crimes Initiatives

President Barack Obama will visit South Africa at the end of the month as part of a three-country African tour. In what is sure to be a crowded agenda, President Obama should also address hate crime violence in South Africa. NGOs have called on the South African government to introduce hate crimes legislation to hold perpetrators of xenophobic violence accountable.

In the past few days, cellphone footage has emerged of 25 year-old Somali national Abdi Nasir Mahmoud Good being stoned to death by a mob that includes young children— eerily reminiscent of when 35 year-old Mozambican national Ernesto Nhamuave was burnt to death. That 2008 attack was part of a wave of xenophobic violence that shocked South Africa and the world with the scale and intensity of attacks on foreign nationals, many of whom had lived alongside their South African neighbors for many years without incident.

Although violence on a similar scale has not been repeated, serious attacks on foreign nationals have continued, including:

  • Around 3000 Zimbabwean nationals were chased from their homes in the farming town of De Doorns, Western Cape, due to disputes over farm labor;
     
  • Threats of widespread xenophobic violence following the FIFA World Cup 2010 prompted the deployment of police and army personnel to prevent and respond to incidents in parts of the country;
     
  • At least 120 people killed in xenophobic violence, including five people burnt alive; and
     
  • Over 500 people were displaced by xenophobic violence in Botshabelo, Free State and at least 140 people killed in different attacks around the country.

The United States has extensive experience to share with other countries, including South Africa, on developing hate crimes legislation, policing and prosecuting hate crimes, and developing systems to monitor hate crimes around the country. President Obama should use his visit to offer support to South Africa’s efforts to address hate crimes, including xenophobic violence, including through support for training for police and prosecutors and the exchange of experts to share good practices in addressing hate crimes. 

In the past two weeks, attacks on foreign nationals and their property have taken place in different parts of the country including DiepslootOrange FarmPort NollothKroonstad and Port Elizabeth. Although the violence has been widely condemned by South African leaders, victims of xenophobic violence continue to have great difficulty accessing justice. During its Universal Periodic Review process, South Africa confirmed to the Human Rights Council that it is developing legislation on hate crimes. Such legislation would help end impunity for perpetrators of hate crime and send a clear message that xenophobic violence will not be tolerated. The United States is well-positioned to help South Africa achieve this.