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‘Xenophobia’ in South Africa: it’s more complicated than you think


Mandla Lionel Isaacs is head of policy for Rise Mzansi.

The periodic outbreaks of xenophobic violence in South Africa unfortunately force a two-dimensional view of our relationship with immigrants and refugees in the country. A more nuanced view is called for, but in times of crisis, it can be difficult to stop and take stock.

Stop the violence. Clearly the top priority for all South Africans right now should be to stop the violent attacks against immigrants, or those perceived to be immigrants. No citizen of any country, much less a Pan-Africanist democracy based on human rights and the rule of law, has the right to brutalise any human being, citizen or immigrant, documented or undocumented.

That being said, much of the opinion and commentary on these troubling events has tended towards the simplistic and hysterical, and has evolved messily into a discussion about immigration in our society in general. I feel compelled to add the following points to the discussion.

South Africa is Africa.

South Africa is, and will always be, part of Africa. All democratic South African Presidents – Mandela, Mbeki, Motlanthe, Zuma – have been consistently clear that South Africa is of Africa, and is inextricably linked to the rest of the continent.

I grew up in Yeoville, one of the most Afropolitan parts of Jo’burg, which is one of the most Afropolitan cities on the continent. I don’t know a South Africa without Congolese, Malawian, Nigerian, Zimbabwean, Angolan, Mozambican brothers and sisters.

Immigration is a complex issue, and an emotive one in most countries with large immigrant populations.

Discussions about immigrations deal with sensitive questions of identity and opportunity: who we are; who is part of the community; who has a right to be here with us; who can share in our scarce resources (available employment is a scarce resource normally overlooked by the middle and upper classes). Anti-immigrant sentiment tends to be based on identity or economic issues. The excluded, included but vulnerable, and those at the margins of the economy, appear to be the most likely to exhibit anti-immigrant sentiment, as they perceive themselves to be in direct competition with foreign migrants. This is exacerbated in times of economic hardship. There is overlap between the bigotry and ethnic chauvinism of those who oppose immigration on identity grounds, and those who oppose it primarily for economic reasons, but it is unhelpful to conflate the two positions if we want to win hearts and minds for a more open and pan-African consensus around immigration.

South Africa is sadly not unique, globally or in Africa, in displaying high (and cyclical?) levels of anti-immigrant sentiment.

Anti-immigrant sentiment has featured prominently in the politics of the USA, UK, Germany and France in recent years. In 1969, Ghana – who gave us one of Africa’s great Pan-Africanists in Kwame Nkrumah – expelled hundreds of thousands of Nigerians and other Africans who had come to Ghana during the boom years of the 1940s and 1950s, and who are reported to have constituted 20% of Ghana’s population at the time. Ivory Coast, whose dynamic economy also attracted many migrants from elsewhere in West Africa, experienced a civil war between 2002 and 2007, one of the drivers of which were tensions around the citizenship rights and legitimacy of newer Ivorians. In West African popular history, ‘Ghana must go’ refers to the 1983 expulsion of up to 800,000 Ghanaians, or as many as two million Africans in total, many of whom had come to fast-growing Nigeria during the oil boom of the 1970s, but were deemed to have overstayed their welcome during the economic downturn of the early 1980s. I am not arguing that we are following in these countries’ footsteps, nor that we should do so. I am saying that South Africa is no different from many other regional powers in displaying tensions on immigration issues, which are most pronounced in times of economic hardship. In our case, the economic hardship for many is permanent, due to the structural features of an economy which marginalises them.

Where we are unique, is that we are an extraordinarily violent society, and thus all our social tensions manifest violently.

It is a major concern that immigrants have been attacked and killed in the past two weeks. But I don’t know that it is any more of a national crisis than the attacks on and murders of: police officers in recent weeks, women all the time, drivers of cars, owners of cell phones, homes etc. South Africa is a violent place.

Arguably the best measure of a country’s level of violence is its homicide rate adjusted for population. By this measure, we are the 11th most violent country in the world according to the most recently available data from the UN Office of Drugs and Crime. The rate at which (mainly black and poor) South Africans die at the hands of other South Africans is one of the great tragedies of our national life.

While I understand that it is particularly shameful and embarrassing to murder guests in our country, I am uncomfortable with the unique outrage some are displaying, as if brutality only matters when it embarrasses us internationally. My heart ached for all of the victims of our malevolence before this immigrant-focused burst, it aches for the lives which have been cruelly taken in these past weeks, and it will ache for those who follow them.

Our plea to stop the violence must not end when these immigrant-focused attacks do. Long after ‘xenophobia’ leaves the headlines, people will continue to die needlessly because of our national sickness, and Twitter will have moved on to the latest hashtag. We need our leaders, our intellectuals, our social scientists, our social workers, to confront our propensity for violence.

Those who think the xenophobic violence makes South Africa an anomaly on the continent, are blinded by misguided exceptionalism.

The rainbow nation myth has long been discredited and retired. But even the most critical and sophisticated among us seem to think that divine providence has declared us immune to the ethnic strife which has bedevilled other African countries. Small-scale conflict over resources, intermixed with questions of belonging, has manifested in large and small incidences of violence all over the continent, and South Africa is no different. Again, while the violence is tragic, and arguably uncharacteristic of our society, it merely emphasises that we must learn the lessons of modern African history. We arrogantly assume(d) we are immune to the ills which have befallen many of our African brethren. Hopefully we will heed this wake-up call.

We need sophisticated analysis by government authorities and social scientists to understand what drives these outbreaks.

In the January attacks directed at foreign spaza shop-owners, were the initial attacks planned and executed by local spaza-owners seeking to eliminate competitors, illegitimate (unlicensed and tax-evading) and legitimate? Some of the newspaper reporting indicates this may have been the case. Are these attacks driven by pure fear or hatred of the other, or are they localised labour/market disputes, exacerbated by rumour and social distance, with anti-immigrant sentiment the match that lights the tinder? How much of this violence is driven by opportunistic and sociopathic criminals, who see immigrants merely as easier targets for robbery? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but they illustrate that it may not be as simple as, ‘bloodthirsty xenophobic South Africans want immigrants out’, as the media narrative seems to tell us.

The root causes of mob violence against immigrants are xenophobia (in so small part driven by Apartheid miseducation) AND structural inequality AND our disturbing propensity toward violence AND ignorance AND lack of pan-African consciousness, none of which are easily resolved.

Why are some South Africans viscerally disdainful of other Africans, and prone to believing and peddling the worst stereotypes about them? Certainly it must have a lot to do with our failure to unlearn Apartheid-era conditioning that South Africa was a European outpost and bastion against the barbaric misrule and mismanagement of Black Africa.

It must also have to do with our own ignorance of the way Africans, including ourselves, have always migrated; the critical contributions migrants have, and continue to make to our society and economy; the contributions many African countries made to our liberation struggle (including Nigeria’s lesser known contributions); the deep and uniquely African cultural, spiritual and linguistic commonalities we share; and most importantly, that the fact of our national difference is largely an artificial, irrational, historical accident occasioned by the capricious pen strokes of European colonisers at the Berlin Conference of 1884-5.

I still maintain, however, that along with our disturbing propensity towards violence, structural inequality is the biggest driver of xenophobic violence. This is despite this recent report on xenophobia in South Africa dismissing my view as ‘xenophobic minimalism’. Quite simply, I don’t believe that if all inhabitants of South Africa were economically and socially secure, that many citizens would commit acts of violence against immigrants, purely out of ill feeling, which is what you would have to believe if you argue that these attacks are primarily about xenophobia, which is defined as ‘an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers’.

Or, if you prefer a more scholarly formulation, from the same report: “…in a situation where “poor people viciously attacked other poor people”, violence must be understood as rooted in intensifying class inequalities due to unequal economic growth that have produced “experiences of relative deprivation” and “perverse cultures of entitlement.” That is, the unmet mounting expectations of indigent South Africans made them strike out at those who were spatially and structurally closest to them.”

South Africa’s efforts, and challenges, in humanely managing immigration are underappreciated.

South Africa, with only the 47th largest population and 33th largest economy in the world, receives among the highest numbers of asylum seekers in the world. We receive tens of thousands of asylum seekers every year, most of whom are really economic migrants, and we diligently investigate their claims. Most other African countries have become less welcoming to refugees in recent years, and South Africa is one of the few countries – if not the only country – on the continent to not confine refugees to camps. Our society’s openness to refugees is one of the reasons many travel through several other African countries to get here. We host tens of thousands of foreign university students. Since 2010, we have regularised almost 250,000 Zimbabweans in South Africa who have fled instability in that country in recent years. We host hundreds of thousands of immigrants from all over Africa and the world who uneventfully and happily live, study and work in our country. They are part of us. South Africa cannot fairly be called an anti-immigrant, or anti-African immigrant, country.

It is unfortunate that a small number of South Africans who have negative attitudes towards our fellow Africans, continue to give us a bad name. South Africans are Africans, South Africa is Africa.

Africa must unite. DM

Disclosure: Mandla works for the Department of Home Affairs, and writes in his personal capacity.


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