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End of History: South Africans and the Zimbabwean Foreign Others

By Dinizulu Mbikokayise Macaphulana

That Zimbabwean political and economic problems are no longer a foreign issue to South Africa, but a domestic crisis, can no longer be questioned. Zimbabwean problems punish the South African economy and polity and are therefore South African problems, in veracity. The millions of Zimbabweans that, in their different problems and purposes populate South Africa formally and informally, legally and illegally, are a stubborn symptom of a deep malady in the relations of the two countries. Countries that are tied together in one jacket of a troubled and troubling fate, possibly.

Making it worse is that South Africa has its own legion of political and economic problems that, chief among them, is the violent social inequalities between blacks and whites, the divide between the rich and the poor, that were structured and systematised by apartheid. Most black South Africans now understand that the political independence and democratisation of South Africa in 1994 did not translate to liberation. Decades after political independence the majority of black people remain sentenced to poverty, misery and anger that is growing by the day.

While political and legal apartheid ended, economic apartheid remains and is eating away at hungry and very angry South Africans that see an enemy in the many Zimbabweans that are scrambling for the crumbs of the post-apartheid cake. The growing anger of South Africans may compel an observer to genuinely fear that a genocide of foreigners, especially Zimbabweans, might soon be possible if something radically thoughtful and sober, is not done in South Africa. The stand-off demands an urgent, well-thought out and durable political solution. A strong political solution that has legal effects is needed.

The multitudes of Zimbabweans that have been in the country for decades, and some that keep flowing into the country, as the political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe goes from the very bad to the very worst, become easy objects for the anger, blame and hate of South Africans. Initially it was some pockets of the South African population that were understandably irritated by Zimbabwean immigrants. The impatience frequently exploded into xenophobic attacks that were witnessed in 2007, 2008, 2019 and are presently simmering and threatening to envelope the entire country. These explosions of violent xenophobia were most times explained away by politicians as negligible acts of criminality, nothing to judge South Africa on.

The next explosion of xenophobic violence against Zimbabweans in South Africa, I surmise, might be more extended and much bloodier than before as the government lately appears to wish to show the population that it agrees that Zimbabweans must at least go if they cannot at most just fall. Zimbabweans are not likely to enjoy much state protection, this time around. The problem might appear to be with Zimbabwe Exemption Permit holders whose permits are not to be renewed but the actual national irritation in South Africa is with Zimbabweans at large, the legal and the illegals combined.

For many years the African National Congress government kept invoking diplomacy and neighbourly African politeness concerning the toxic neighbour to the North. ‘Quiet diplomacy’ and other novelties were flagged. To the chagrin of most Zimbabweans, the ANC has been a vigorous defender of the ZANU-PF government with all its excesses that include a major genocide in shape of Gukurahundi, political violence, corruption, election rigging and tyranny that smell high to the heavens. At long last the ANC is running out of diplomatic tricks and excuses and must face the political economic smell from across the border in its putrid actuality.

What has happened is that in the gap between ANC politeness and increasing ZANU-PF toxicity (violence, corruption, evil and poor leadership) that keeps producing new political and economic refugees for South Africa, some radical if right wing political parties have arisen to claim the political support of South Africans. Their catchy slogans are rooted on the Zimbabweans that are taking over the country, depleting national resources, committing crimes, monopolising jobs and life opportunities that are meant for South Africans. Very angry and populist passions are circulating about the growing danger that Zimbabweans pose to South Africa and the ANC is blamed for looking aside while Zimbabweans colonise the country. To preserve its popular support and keep its political base, the ANC must do something, and be seen to be doing something about the problem of Zimbabwean ‘parasites.’ The ANC government has arrived at that stage where it must choose between protecting Zimbabweans and losing popular national support. It is not an easy choice but one that must be made, and the ANC has made it. The Zimbabwe exemption permits are not to be renewed and many Zimbabweans in South Africa face deportation. Further, the government is prepared to understand or simply look aside as mobs of some South Africans take it upon themselves to push Zimbabweans out of the country. That is where the danger lies. If mobs, motivated by some populist, thoughtless but very passionate, and energetic leaders of some small but ambitious political parties are let loose, havoc and all its bloody consequences will carry the day. If wise, sober and intelligent leaders were ever most needed in South Africa, that time is now.

The Problem People

The debate about the problem of Zimbabweans in South Africa is heated and charged. Largely the Zimbabweans are constructed and understood as people that are a problem and not people that have a problem, in Zimbabwe and in South Africa. To understand and affirm that one is South African now seems to be based on taking a position against Zimbabweans as an itch on the wrong place of the polity and the economy of the country. Political leaders and their followers seem to have finally found each other in the strong belief that Zimbabweans in South Africa, as problem people, must be decisively solved, once and for all.

What infuriates some South Africans more is news that constantly breaks out about how Zimbabwean leaders, their families and friends are big dealers, smugglers and spenders that are becoming richer than the country. Zimbabwean presidential advisors and profiteering prophets with no known employment or businesses whatsoever are spectacularly blowing millions on food and drinks in South African restaurants. It becomes commonsensical to the random South African that Zimbabweans in South Africa are a bunch of cowards and losers that are prepared to do hard and dirty work for less money in South Africa than confront a corrupt and tyrannical government in their country. That Zimbabweans must ‘go and fix your country’ is a remark that South Africans, including children, now keep repeating within the earshot of any Zimbabwean that happens to be around anywhere. And this is made to sound like deep political wisdom. What is not accounted for is that the Zimbabwean victims of anger and hatred in South Africa are primarily those that have been victims of violence and corruption in Zimbabwe, in the first place.

The point that is missed by many is that the angry South African multitudes and the endangered Zimbabweans; forget the borders, maps and names, are victims of the same political system. Victims of political and economic elites that have done nothing, if not little, to ensure that the resources of a country go to the populace and not to individual pockets. The South African government does not easily see that the burden of millions of Zimbabweans in South is connected to ZANU-PF misrule and tyranny. If that was easily and clearly seen, South Africa would have long supported the ZANU-PF government with more tough love and less tolerance and understanding.

On their side, the Zimbabweans in South African and their South African allies take refuge behind such strong but tired arguments as to point to how Zimbabwe and other countries supported the South African liberation struggle, and at great risk, housed the exiles. The grand ideal of Pan-Africanism and its slogans such as that there is no black African that is a foreigner in any African country is hoisted like a flag. The true nonsense of colonial borders and how they continue to much unjustly separate and divide Africans is called out for its evil. South Africans themselves are called out for their senseless xenophobia and violence. They are afraid of whites, the real foreigners in South Africa that hold monopoly of wealth and life at the expense of blacks, South African and non-South African. Gloried names of Albert Luthuli, Chris Hani, Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela are frequently brought down as some fetishes to remind South Africans of the love and unity of black Africans that they have lost to xenophobia. On the excitable and populist end there are fanatics that are now advancing the ‘foreigners must fight back’ mantra. Here South Africans are warned that very soon foreigners will stop dying like sheep and get armed and dangerous to respond to fire with fire.

That by and large, Zimbabweans in South Africa are intelligent and hard-working fellows that are productively growing the South African economy and polity is also another argument that is passionately touted. There is even a comforting myth, a fiction so lulling to the Zimbabwean ego that, after all, South Africa might collapse to nothing if Zimbabweans are removed from the country. This myth is based on another fiction that Zimbabweans are a brilliant, strong and exceptional type that can defeat any task before them. This fable is totally ignorant of the stubborn truism that the same brilliant and strong Zimbabweans cannot overcome a genocidal, corrupt and tyrannical regime that they created and cultivated until it became a monstrosity of some biblical proportions. The same confabulation ignores that South Africans on their own, are some of the most courageous, intelligent and hard-working people under the sun, a patient and most times colourful people that have seen it all in history. In the end, both Zimbabweans and South Africans are a fallible, and not exceptional people. They are people with a problem and not people that are a problem.

The End of History and the Last Foreigner

The debate on the Zimbabweans and South Africans in South Africa is largely captive to myths, fictions, passions and some charged delusions. The veracities of the problem that has turned victim against victim are left at large, unobserved and unanalysed. The arguments within the debate are based on two Garden of Eden narratives. One narrative is that Zimbabweans are a problem people that are cowards and have resigned to their victimhood in South Africa. The belief is that once South Africa has rid itself of Zimbabweans, and other foreigners, the country will be a land of ‘chocolate cities’ and ‘vanilla suburbs.’ Never mind that foreigners, anywhere in the world, cannot be finished.

The other narrative, an opposite one, is that South Africans are an Afrophobic lot that hate other Africans, hence their xenophobia. These arguments as, at times convincing as they are, tend to be at best innocent and at worst naïve. South Africans, systemically and structurally, find themselves in an unequal society that has made oxygen itself scarce, they cannot breathe in the land of plenty, and their patience with foreigners has run out. Enduring economic apartheid cuts deep. Zimbabweans on the other hand are under a native colonialist regime in Zimbabwe where, for the past three decades, a powerful economic, political and military elite are eating on behalf of the nation. The president himself, his family and friends, are understood to be richer than the country whose workers and peasants now survive from money and goods sent from South Africa, Botswana, the UK and other countries by displaced relatives and other kith. That history will end with the departure of Zimbabweans from South Africa or with the end of xenophobia in South Africa is mythical. Coloniality in shape of native colonialism in Zimbabwe and apartheid inequalities in South Africa is the proverbial elephant in the room. The word xenophobia conceals rather than it reveals what exactly the problem is in South African concerning Zimbabweans and other so-called foreigners and the nationals. Looking at the collective victimhood to coloniality of South Africans and their foreign others, especially Zimbabweans, clarifies what the struggle for liberation is about in the present African context.


Dinizulu Mbikokayise Macaphulana is a South African based Zimbabwean political scientist and semiotician. He can be contacted on:


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