As we celebrate our 21st birthday,how do we move on from xenophobic attacks

As we celebrate our 21st birthday, how do we move on from xenophobic violence?

The Restorative Justice Centre joins the thousands of other voices and initiatives in shock and sadness and in condemning the recent acts of violence that have rocked our country.

The responses that have emerged over the past week, such as the President’s meeting with a number of organisations, the marches through the streets of Johannesburg and Pretoria, are vital in countering the discourse of toxic violence and in building consensus around the view that such acts of violence are totally unacceptable.

They also provide an opportunity for leaders at all levels to speak in a unified voice to dispel the myths about foreign nationals and to affirm our national, founding Constitutional value of human dignity as we celebrate 21 years of democracy. Government’s show have of force in mobilising the SANDF, in conducting raids on perceived hotspots and arresting suspects may be an important part of restraining violence. It is crucial however, that this show of force is limited to “minimum force’, and responsible restraint , that is, the very minimum that is required to restrain violence and bring suspects to book.

Of course, our temptation is to think that this show of force will ‘fix everything’, while a moment’s reflection will indicate that this cannot be the case. What is needed now more than ever is the understanding from the field of conflict transformation that incidents of violence cannot be understood in isolation from the deep historical, structural, cultural, relational and personal contexts within which they occur. It is only when these roots are indentified that a horizon of the future can begin to be imagined. Such an approach goes beyond negotiating solutions and builds towards something new, to quote John Paul Lederach, a pioneering thinker in the field.

This approach indicates the need for reflective inquiry, for opening up spaces for debate, dialogue and conversation. While holding the individuals responsible for criminal acts accountable through the judicial processes is essential, the way in which this done is crucial. Once again, we cannot expect too much from simply imposing punishment. We also need to guard against the danger of regarding these individuals as scapegoats, ignoring the context within which their actions occurred, and absolving the rest of us. Arriving at an appropriate sentence in cases of murder, attempted murder, serious assault and damage to property in this context will be even more complex than usual. To have maximum effect a creative sentencing officer will need to connect to broader community initiatives.

The restorative justice lens of creating opportunities to make things right, for dialogue and for attitudinal and behavioural change by both individuals and the community they come from seems an essential approach to use. By approaching what is hopefully now the aftermath of these episodes of violence in a restorative, transformative way, we can begin to imagine a better future.

Useful articles and resources

TRAINING WORKSHOP ON PRACTICAL RESPONSES TO XENOPHOBIA offered by St Augustine College, highly recommended

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s Responses and recommendations to countering xenophobia in South Africa

Special outreach pricing structurPap e for e'(a pre-cooked food (powder) which is mixed up with clean drinking water to make an instant nutritious meal)