Xenophobia in South Africa: When Shall we Call a Spade a Spade?


Doubts and confusion, as well as questions persist around the recent attacks by black South Africans on their black African counterparts from across the continent, who are resident in South Africa. There have been long held disagreements within South African socio-political circles that the attacks are not xenophobic. Such admission would qualify South Africans as xenophobic which, in my opinion, can be as worse as calling Nigerians drug dealers. These social generalisations are disrespectful to the many good South Africans and similarly to Nigerians working towards the country’s economic growth. Yes, there are South Africans and Nigerians giving a bad name to these two nationalities but that does not justify using a blanket term. Therefore, the problem needs to be dealt with in a more rational way if we are to bring about lasting solutions. Both denialism and generalisation are dangerous tendencies.


Lest We Forget!


Violent attacks on nationals from other countries in South Africa, termed ‘Afrophobic attacks, have a long history in post-apartheid South Africa. Gauteng, Western Cape, Free State, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal provinces have been the hotbeds of Afro-phobia since 1994. There have been successive and organised Afro-phobic incidents in different parts of South Africa. In 1994, as reported by the South African History Online, a gang of armed youths launched Afrophobic attacks in Alexandra township in Gauteng, destroying ‘homes and property of suspected undocumented migrants’ and marching ‘foreigners’ to the police station demanding their forceful removal from the township. In 1998, a group of South Africans organised a match against African foreigners whom they accused of increasing crime, lack of jobs and the spread of HIV/AIDS in Johannesburg. In the process foreigners borne the brunt of being pushed out of moving trains while on the other hand they had their property burnt down during the same period. In 2000, seven foreigners were killed while some of them were burnt alive in their houses by a group of men in the Cape Flats. Eight years later, major afro-phobic incidents spread from Gauteng to the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, Cape Town and Limpopo. Groups of local South Africans burnt down and/or looted hundreds of houses and shops they suspected belonged to foreigners. These attacks, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), claimed 62 lives, (21 being South African nationals) displaced 20,000 people, and left countless victims injured and robbed of their property. The recent wave of attacks that happened between August and early September this year is said to have claimed approximately 10 people, of whom two are foreign nationals.


Denialism, Denialism But it Still Remains


There seems to be now some cycles or seasonal waves of attacks of black foreigners in South Africa. However, there has emerged a big contestation on whether to qualify as xenophobic these seemingly organised and sporadic attacks by some South Africans on their African brothers and sisters. Prominent South Africans, mainly politicians and other great leaders including the Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, and President Cyril Ramaphosa have publicly stated that South Africans are not xenophobic and decide to blame poverty or criminality. This denialism is very dangerous as it seeks to mask a problem that seems to be worsening with each and every year that passes by. The reality that the South African leadership has to face is that, whether motivated by hunger or criminality is not the issue under scrutiny. The voices from the protesters have been consistently loud and clear: Let them go (Abahambe)! Secondly, the leadership is failing to realise that by calling the attacks xenophobic, it does not make all South Africans xenophobic, but will assist them in confronting the bull by its horns whilst at the same time not sour its relations with their fellow Africans. This is a challenge that needs a bold and decisive leadership if it will ever be solved. Rebutting the xenophobia argument the South African government officials led by President Ramaphosa, have argued that attacks against foreigners are a product of criminal elements. Usually, the target of criminals is to access the material goods and only attack or kill when they feel threatened in the process. Therefore, the association between crime and attacks against immigrants cannot be easily be dismissed as not xenophobic, after all, xenophobia is a crime on its own. While terming xenophobic attacks as criminal is correct, the selective choice of terminology masks a worrisome trend of denialism of a serious and persistent social problem. We should all be concerned about crime and drug peddling as these social ills spare no one and we must be rational, rather than emotional in addressing the problem. The case of Cherly Cwele , wife to then State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele who was convicted for being a drug queen rings a bell. She was not Nigerian but South African. Two truths are worth stating: firstly, not all Nigerians are drug peddlers and, secondly, not all drugs in South Africa, or any other country for that matter alone, are peddled by Nigerians. For argument’s sake, even if all Nigerians were drug peddlers, mob justice is neither the right nor the legal way to address the problem. By shred of rationality, since not all Nigerians are drug peddlers, attacking or supporting attacks against Nigerians is not a practice that can be absolved of xenophobia.

However there are some sections of the South African Society that have decided to bite the bullet and call ‘a spade a spade’. The Catholic Church, Human Right Watch and other civil society groups have repeatedly discouraged the violent attacks describing them as xenophobic, which indicates that the attacks do not reflect the majority sentiment of South Africans. The Economic Freedom Fighters, one of the most influential opposition party in the country has also described the attacks as xenophobic and has gone as far as calling them African’s ‘self-hate’. Maybe other sections of the South African society may need to follow these examples by not glossing over the attacks before things get out of hand.


Some Un-answered Questions


While the South African government has been able to provide figures of loss of lives with a demarcation of South African victims and those who are not. A statement that a majority of the fatalities are South African and the lack of details on the identity of the deceased and circumstances surrounding their deaths feeds into the narrative that the attacks were not xenophobic. To debunk the myth, a number of questions are worth paying attention to: Who killed whom? Were the deaths of South Africans an outcome of retaliation from foreigners, of mistaken identity during attacks on foreigners, or of something else? How are those who committed the killings going to account if the government lacks details?

It is self-defeating political correctness to spin attacks on African foreigners as not xenophobic. Many realities bolster this perspective. The first reality is that habitually, hostel dwellers carryout physical attacks against African foreigners. This section of the South African population is impoverished and unemployed, with low level of education and very susceptible to manipulation for different motives, ranging from personal, political and criminal. Their modus operandi, is to mobilise people to attack immigrants in the townships and loot shops and assault their victims. Often times, the assaults involve gruesome beating, stoning, and burning of goods and people. Social media have shared a few, but deeply traumatizing incidents of immigrants who are burnt alive.


The Un-intended Consequences: All Immigrants are Criminals


The reality is that the levels of poverty, unemployment, crime and other social ills, particularly drug abuse and homelessness among youth are ever rising in South Africa and government has been helplessly unable to address these problems. The unfortunate part is that the attacks creates an atmosphere where both documented and undocumented immigrants are dumped into one bracket and considered as the main culprits. To make matters worse, Nigerian immigrants are accused of proliferating harmful drugs, which are destroying the youth, while the other African immigrants, are said to be common criminals or dealing in counterfeit goods and other forms of social vices. Under this atmosphere, the foreigner, in one blanket sweep becomes an undesirable criminal. To this end, concerned South Africans, including those in the working and middle class have expressed genuine and legitimate concerns about the state of affairs with many having gone to as far as supporting the narrative that foreigners are the prime cause of the South African problem. Research findings on attitudes towards immigrants by the Pew Research Centre suggest that xenophobic sentiments could be widespread in South Africa. Conducted in 2018, the research found that 62% of South Africans perceived immigrants as a burden in that they were taking their jobs and social benefits due to locals. Furthermore, 61 % blamed the high levels of crime in the country on foreigners more than any other social group.


The killings and attacks can’t be justified


The other reality is that the democratic South Africa has hosted unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers as well as political and economic refugees from other countries looking for safe and greener pastures. In such a situation, it therefore, means that both the poor South African are pitted with the foreigners in the contest for access to limited resources where these are unequally distributed between a minority white oligarch and a majority black poor. However, plausible this reality is, it does not make it right for poor black South Africans to attack other foreign nationals by profiling them based on their skin colour and nationalities. Evidence has shown that victims of xenophobic attacks are mostly black African foreigners, hence the term, Afro-phobia.


On social media, I have responded to the argument that the attacks are not xenophobic by counter arguing that South Africa is not the poorest country in Africa, nor is it the only immigrant hosting country on the continent. We have not heard of poor people attacking immigrants blaming them for their poverty and unemployment in other countries. Yes, we have heard about how Nigeria expatriated Ghanaian immigrants in 1983 and other countries setting social closure mechanism to limit the access of immigrants to certain economic activities. However, we have not heard of people being targeted and killed just because they are immigrants working or doing jobs that can be done by locals in many other African countries.


Bisimwa Timothee Makanishe is a PhD Candidate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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