South Africa

Op-Ed: When the economy suffers, xenophobia thrives

By Stephen Grootes 15 April 2015

This shouldn’t be happening again. That’s the feeling almost everyone has as people who are not from here are attacked in South Africa once more, fatally in some cases. It’s impossible to think of the violence that gripped parts of Durban this week, and the fear that gripped part of the Jo’burg CBD, without thinking of the people who died in 2008. In formal society, there is now much hand-wringing, campaigning and hash-tagging. People want to know what can be done to stop it, why it is happening, and whether this evil will ever leave us. Some blame King Goodwill Zwelithini for saying foreigners should go, some blame Number One for failing to act (which is not true), and some blame Apartheid. In the end, the job of unpacking reasons for xenophobia is not so complicated. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

You can bet a lot of money that the subtext that will be taken from pictures and descriptions in some of the foreign media will include a claim that our people are inherently violent, and inherently hate people who are not South African. Some of that sub-text will have a racial tinge to it. And while it can be difficult to understand being part of a group attacking a shop or running after someone with a panga, one thing can be ascertained very easily. The main reason they are doing this is because they can. They are not afraid of the consequences. They do not believe they will be punished. They also feel they have nothing to lose. The two are obviously related to each other. If we can fix that, we may be halfway to solving the problem in the longer term.

And yet, through all the public discussions about xenophobia, or Afrophobia, or whatever you want to call it, we hear very little discussion about the economy. It’s a truism that poor people are doing this. But the mechanism between them being poor and xenophobic violence breaking out needs to be better understood.

This points not just to the lack of economic growth (which we have discussed repeatedly, but in a nutshell is due to ideological constraints, a distrust of the private sector, the inability to make policy and then follow through with it, and of course, state-owned enterprises like Eskom), but also due to the unequal nature of that growth. Poor countries have violence, sure; and yet our violence is different, and our inequality must play a role in that. (The Somalian Embassy claimed this week that South Africans going to Somalia and starting shops there would be well looked-after, that “they would be our guests”. And Somalia is a much poorer country than we are.) Perhaps, in the minds of the people perpetrating this violence, there is the idea that they need to take their hanger on the “haves”. In this case, the “haves” are the foreign nationals, who do live in their communities. There may also be a feeling that the consequences of attacking other rich South Africans may in fact be greater than attacking foreign nationals, or richer South Africans are perhaps just better protected.

But more than other reasons, the violence points to a lack of hope that our economy will improve. Someone who is trying to keep their child in a good school with the hope that that child will be the last of the family to grow up poor doesn’t engage in this violence. There is something to lose; the child, and the future. But someone who has lost hope in our economy, in our education system, may see no point in the future.

Xenophobic attacks are almost always about the economy. It’s time to recognise that. As we’ve said before, fix the economy, get things moving, get jobs going, and so much else will fix itself.

The second major problem is the perception that there is a lack of consequences for the violence. This situation may be improving, people have been arrested and charged with criminal acts in this round of xenophobic attacks. But there is always the problem of the follow-through. As the Victims of Crime Survey published by Statistics South Africa this week shows, many people simply don’t trust the criminal justice system. And many more believe the courts are too lenient. Never mind that they simply take too long to actually achieve any result.

The number of people policing our society has gone up quite dramatically over the last few years, and some sources suggest we have more police per hundred thousand people than places like the US. Of course that doesn’t mean that those police officers are always effective; they do have to be managed properly. In the end, what really matters is that whether the police force actually succeeds in making people beware they will be caught, that their risk of detection and then punishment for violence is reasonably high; in South Africa, the probability of getting away with murder is simply not so unreasonable.

This, then, brings us to what you could call issues of attitudes. As King Zwelithini has displayed this month, having a wife from another country doesn’t necessarily mean you trust foreigners. Many countries have some form of unelected leader, someone who isn’t accountable to anyone, and yet occupies a specific space in society. We have traditional leaders who inherit their position, live in mansions of splendor and appear to do little for their subjects. We haven’t yet quite found a way to bring our unelected leaders back into line. We will in the end probably be successful in that mission, but it is going to take time.

There will be many who will say our education system is part of the problem here. However, many people are taught one set of behaviour at school, and display something quite different later. It’s not so much about education, but about our social attitudes in general. And there is no point having a teacher who makes xenophobic jokes in class trying to follow a curriculum about how everyone is born equal.

This violence should soon abate. Then the question will be: when will it rise again? And while government’s response to these “outbreaks” is generally improving, as probably is the police response, the most crucial element of them all, improvement of the economy, is far from where it should be.

In the end, it is simple: people are more welcoming, and more willing to share the pie, if that pie is big and always growing. If it’s getting smaller, they are less willing, and more likely to fight to protect what they perceive is their slice. The South African economy has been growing way too slowly for way too many years to sustain its own population growth, let alone offer more opportunities that are so desperately needed. (It is not entirely coincidental that the previous massive outbreak happened in the wake of the massive Eskom-generated electrical supply problems in 2008.) As has happened many times before, when the game of life in South Africa becomes a zero-sum game, hopes for a better future are replaced with fear of losing what one has – never a good space to be in. Hope always created beautiful things. In South Africa, fear begets xenophobic violence. DM

Photo:Foreigners queue for food provided by local community members at the sports field in Isipingo, south of Durban, April 13, 2015. Several hundred foreign nationals have sought refuge in the tents after xenophobia driven violence forced them to flee their homes and businesses. REUTERS/Rogan Ward



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