South Africa

Africa, South Africa

Op-Ed: You better go back! Xenophobia at South Africa’s universities

Op-Ed: You better go back! Xenophobia at South Africa’s universities

The death of Tanzanian University of Johannesburg student Baraka Leonard Nafari potentially marks the first known violent xenophobic attack on a South African university campus. However, research shows that African students in South Africa routinely face xenophobic sentiment. By LAURA FREEMAN and JENNY LEE.

On Friday, 23 February, Tanzanian University of Johannesburg PhD student Baraka Leonard Nafari was killed in what may be South Africa’s first known violent xenophobic attack on a university campus. The attack began off campus, and CCTV footage allegedly shows Nafari and another UJ student running onto campus as they are pursued by two men in a taxi. In an interview with City Press, a colleague and friend of Nafari explained that, “From the footage we saw it was clear that the taxi deliberately struck Baraka against the fence of the Sophiatown residence and killed him.” Nafari’s brother, Uwezo Gwiliye, further stated, “it seems as though he (Nafari) was the target, even though there were two of them”.

The attack is thought to be motivated by xenophobic, anti-foreigner sentiment, with the driver allegedly labelling Nafari “kwerekwere”. According to Marc Gbaffou, chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum (ADF), Nafari may have been a “soft target” because he was wearing African attire that day and he “could be easily identified as a non-South African citizen”.

A case of culpable homicide has been opened by the Brixton SAPS, but, according to reports, the driver has not been arrested on these charges. ADF Marc Gbaffou states, “(t)he information we have indicates that the driver’s mother is a powerful taxi owner in the area, which could be the reason why the taxi driver was only charged with driving without a license and released on bail the same day.”

He adds, “the second person who was in the taxi and seen on the CCTV camera to get out of the taxi and attack Baraka physically, was not even charged by the police”.

While the death of Nafari potentially marks a gruesome first – a violent xenophobic attack at a South African Higher Education Institution (HEI) – it does not mark the first incidence of xenophobia against African students.

To set the context, it’s important to understand patterns of discrimination against perceived or actual “foreigners” in South Africa. Whereas xenophobic violence has tended to be located in contested urban spaces, xenophobic attitudes in South Africa are widespread. Public opinion surveys from the 1990s onwards show high levels of anti-foreigner sentiment across socio-demographic markers, class, and racial divides.

A 2006 survey by the Southern African Migration Project found that 78% of South Africans wanted restrictions on migration, and nearly 50% wanted all migrants to be deported (regardless of their status). Research analysing South African Social Attitude Surveys from 2003-2012 similarly showed “the alarming and widespread pervasiveness of anti-immigrant sentiment”.

According to the 2013 World Values Survey data, 42.8% of South African respondents wouldn’t want immigrations or foreign workers as neighbours. More recent research has shown that individuals who are in vulnerable positions (with fewer support mechanisms) and those who have less contact with immigrants are more likely to oppose them. And results from the 2017 South African Reconciliation Barometer show high levels of distrust towards non-nationals, the most distrusted group being Africans.

In this regard, government denials of xenophobia are both inaccurate and deeply unhelpful. However, government officials (past and present) have denied it again, again and again.

Research specific to international students at South Africa’s tertiary institutions shows that sentiments against internationals are not uniformly negative. Based on a recent study of 1702 international students at seven tertiary institutions across South Africa, those originating from within Africa reported more discrimination than those from outside the continent.

Students of South Africa’s largest migratory group, Zimbabweans, felt the most mistreated. When asked about the possible reasons for discrimination, a significantly higher proportion of Africans (38%) felt the reasons were due to their nationality compared to non-Africans (23%). Moreover, Zimbabweans (48%) were more likely to indicate problems due to their nationality than other African students (34%).

Meanwhile, students from Europe and North America generally felt welcome. The research suggests neo-nationalism – a preference for some nationalities above others – as more prevalent than general xenophobia.

The same study indicated that most of the negative incidents were reported to have occurred off campus. Similar to the Nafari case, past reports include harassment from locals, such as a taxi driver cursing and yelling, “If not for Mandela, you would not be in South Africa and now that he is dead, you better go back!”

Others reported difficulties in accessing basic services, such as accommodation and bank accounts, as well as being charged higher payments compared to locals without just cause. This tendency likely reflects the larger political and economic contexts of discrimination, which views internationals as threats and treats them as scapegoats to blame for locals’ hardships. Such hostility can permeate to university spaces.

While university settings are normally considered relatively safe, international students have reported xenophobic and neo-national experiences both on as well as off-campus. Such incidents include negative stereotyping from professors and social exclusion from peers.

With ongoing xenophobia and neo-nationalism in South Africa, there have already been reports of drops in the enrolment of international students at universities. Some of those already enrolled shared their regrets. According to a Zimbabwean student, “I am always in constant fear of xenophobic attacks. If I wasn’t halfway through I’d change universities and return home.”

Besides fears of unsafety, there are ongoing challenges to secure study visas. International students reported receiving obscure or conflicting information, lack of follow-through, and often times resistance. Such hurdles can easily be interpreted as fighting to enter an unwelcome country.

In the words of one respondent, “getting a South African visa is like you are going to a war.” Students also shared having to delay their studies and knowing of others who decided to study elsewhere as a result of their visa challenges. Many others reported how the stress of confirming their visa status negatively impacted their studies. A student stated, “I can’t even do my work. I wasn’t even happy. I regretted coming to the university.”

According to Professor Maxi Shoeman, during 2017 alone, more than 100 international students accepted to the University of Pretoria were still waiting for permits. She said, “(a)lthough this could be due to simple incompetence at embassies, it was being perceived as a deliberate way of trying to keep foreigners out”.

There are also cases of local South Africans being mistaken as internationals and feeling demeaned. According to one account, a South African student described how she was labelled a foreigner because the postgraduate student she was conversing with did not know Limpopo, where she originated, was in South Africa.

While universities are typically safer environments for enrolled international students, there is more institutions can do. The response of the University of Johannesburg to this incident appears to have been slow. While Nafari was murdered on 23 February, the university only released an internal statement on 2 March, which is when the case began to be reported in local and African media. Similarly, the university appears to have been slow to cooperate with the police, only sharing the CCTV footage around the same time.

Public accountability and safety should not be secondary to the preservation of a university’s image or delaying bureaucracy. Rather, as Gbaffou commented: “Institutions should take the lead on resolving critical questions including xenophobia attitude.”

Such leadership could entail forums that educate the public on the positive role and contributions of internationals, statements from leaders condemning xenophobic acts and attitudes, and increasing support for international students, particularly potential neo-nationalism targets (ie African students).

Discussions around xenophobia on campuses must not be tackled in isolation. As Professor Loren Landau of the University of Witwatersrand’s African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) states: “We are not going to address xenophobia on campuses until we can open up the discussion of discrimination. In SA we are fixated by racial bias. If we’re lucky, people recognise discrimination against women and LGBTIQ people. These matter and should be discussed. However, universities – and state institutions generally – have been relatively unwilling to talk about ethnicity, origin (even within South Africa), or class as bases on which people are discriminated against every day. Xenophobia can’t just be singled out if we are to find a way to build more inclusive campuses.”

All too frequently, international students are invisible; they often do not report discrimination to university or public officials, sometimes out of fear that they will only draw negative attention or worse, be deported. Starting from visa challenges to social experiences once enrolled, why should discriminated individuals trust a system that seems to hurt them? Thus, rather than passively waiting for conditions to worsen or slowly reacting after violence occurs, university and public leaders must pro-actively educate the public and keep our international students safe. DM

Jenny Lee is a Professor of higher education at the University of Arizona and a Visiting Scholar at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED). Her research focuses on the internationalisation of tertiary education, including neo-nationalism in HEIs in the US, South Korea and South Africa

Laura Freeman is an independent migration and conflict consultant, with a focus on xenophobia in South Africa. She is also a Research Associate at the University of Cape Town’s Safety & Violence Initiative (SaVI)

Photo: Hundreds protest during an anti xenophobia march organised by the African Diaspora Forum in Johannesburg, South Africa, 28 March 2017. Photo: EPA/CORNELL TUKIRI


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