The recent xenophobic/afro-phobic attacks in South Africa point not only to the long-standing problems in the so called ‘rainbow nation’, but to the continent in general. According to media reports, the recent wave of attacks that started in Pretoria and made its way to the central business district of Johannesburg, claimed twelve lives and of these eight are said to be South Africans and the other two Zimbabwean nationals. Xenophobia is truly bad and it is an unacceptable act in any society. However, instead of shouldering all the blame on South Africans, it is my submission that xenophobia is also Africa’s burden. It is precisely so, in the context of an Africa facing a myriad of political, social and economic challenges. People from across the continent have found the economic stability in South Africa as a safe haven for survival. Unfortunately, South Africa also has its economic landscape still captured by colonial land imbalances which are still yet to be resolved twenty five years after the country attained its independence. South Africa won its political independence in 1994 paving way for the black majority rule, but the economic levers and power remained in the hands of the white minority.
The unbridled levels of poverty and stagnant economies characterised by civil war, terrorist attacks and intra-state conflicts in most African countries have forced many citizens of those nations to immigrate to South Africa. A cursory glance at the economic and political situation in Somalia, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (specifically the eastern part), Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Mozambique, Malawi, South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) reflects heavily on the plight of ordinary citizens. In most cases, citizens have to face poverty or prolonged conflicts and insecurity leading to many of them abandoning their countries to seek sanctuary in South Africa or Europe.
When people migrate to South Africa in their numbers, the locals understandably get infuriated, as foreigners are seen as a serious threat to the limited available job opportunities and resources. On the other hand, they are seen as common criminals that have largely been contributing to the high crime rate in South Africa, hence the attacks and inhumane treatment. However, in as much as the South Africans are to blame for these xenophobia/afrophobic attacks on foreign nationals, African leaders, should also take blame for failing to create employment and respect human dignity in their respective countries, a situation that has resulted in their people flocking to South Africa. In 2015, former South African President Jacob Zuma, once challenged other African presidents to take responsibility of what is happening in South Africa as they are also part of the problem.
“As much as we have a problem that is alleged to be xenophobic, our sister countries contribute to this. Why are their citizens not in their countries?”
According to Zuma the solution to end the xenophobic/afrophobic attacks on foreign nationals should not be South Africa’s alone but an African collective; hence, the need for frank conversations to take place within the Southern African Development Community as well as the African Union.
The Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, commenting on the recent attacks said they were misplaced aggression directed at the wrong people, black Africans, who selling their cheap labour for survival. Malema lays the blame on white monopoly capital which he accuses of stealing South Africa’s wealth and at the same time creating conditions that inflames xenophobia by telling South Africans that they are poor and unemployed because ‘foreigners’ took their jobs. He further claimed that the current borders were imposed on the continent by colonialists and as such divide Africans.
A survey undertaken by the South African Migration Project (SAMP) in 2006 revealed that 84% of South Africans feel that their government is allowing too many foreign nationals in the country. The survey also revealed South Africans’ dissatisfaction with the leniency and ineffectiveness of the South African deportation policy. From the survey, it is quite clear that migration is an issue in South African Society that needs urgent attention. This understanding of the impact of xenophobia on identity, together with the culture of violence that pervades ordinary South African life, suggests that xenophobia is not the pathology it is represented to be. Rather, it is a key component of the ‘New South African’ nation.
Xenophobia adds to the problems asylum seekers and refugees encounter. The images of large groups chanting slogans, welding machetes and pangas evokes memories of violence, torture, rape and killings that survivors would have experienced in their countries of origin. Most foreigners who encountered xenophobic attacks always bear the burden of acquiring the much needed basic belongings for survival after their former ones would have been burnt, looted or destroyed during the attacks.
More notable is that under neoliberalism, citizenship now largely equates to having the right to private ownership of property within the territory, although this right can be arbitrary in its application and is now highly contested at all levels of the state. Post-1990s electoral democracy in Africa has sparked new contestations over citizenship and belonging, not in terms of promoting national identity and social cohesion, but in terms of entitlements, especially to the few remaining publicly accessible resources, such as land and political office—increasingly both are restricted to those who are ‘historical indigenes’ or ‘true’ citizens. As such, South Africa’s attacks on foreign nationals can be perceived within misplaced aggression which is well articulated by the youthful vibrant leader of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)-Julius Malema.
On the economic front, xenophobia has negatively affected South Africa as property got destroyed and businesses faced disruptions. Further, xenophobia attacks have instilled fear in many people in general and regional residents specifically cross-border traders such that those who rely on trading suspended it for a while, thus, reducing the normal sales in the South African stores. Regionally, South African owned businesses suffered a great deal from the reprisal attacks that happened in Nigeria and Zambia where angry protestors stormed the South African telecom operator, MTN, Shoprite, Pick and Pay among others.
The apology offered by President Cyril Ramaphosa at the funeral of former Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe and his dispatch of emissaries into Africa is commendable. Perhaps, this could be a starting point for Africans to have a frank dialogue on resolving this issue. On the other hand, the stern warnings on the dangers of xenophobia from the leader of Economic Freedom Fighters, an influential opposition political party in South Africa, Julius Malema are well worth noting. Xenophobia is an African burden and has to be condoned by all means necessary. A collective approach from all African countries is necessary if this problem is to be confronted with the honest it deserves.
Brian Maregedze is a historian, author and columnist. He has research interests on Migration trends in Africa with particular focus on Refugees and related issues. He is also a Research Associate with Leaders for Africa Network (LAN) - a Pan African research think tank and membership with Zimbabwe Historical Association (ZHA). Feedback email; email@example.com