Listening to and looking at the footage on the “xenophobia attacks” in South Africa, I was struck by how much emotion is flying around with very little substance as to the root causes of this situation. In other words, I don’t see any real debate about the current realities and what could potentially have given rise to this unacceptable phenomenon.
From where I’m sitting, this is nothing short of criminal activity and has nothing to do with xenophobia. Why do I say this?
For starters, foreign nationals are not the target of these criminals – a few black Africans in selected townships are. Foreign nationals sitting in Sandton, the Waterfront in Cape Town, in business meetings and driving our Uber vehicles are hardly being targeted by South Africans. No foreign nationals from Europe or North America are being targeted by the mobs – most curious. The loss of life is, of course, most regrettable, but even here, unlike previous incidents of this nature, very few foreign nationals died. In fact, most of the dead were South African nationals.
South Africa has a history that is so intertwined with the continent that any suggestion that we are xenophobic is simply untrue.
Our migrant labour system has for years meant that men and women from all over the continent gathered and worked here, in and around our mines. Voluntarily subjugating themselves to hard labour, racists and intolerable working conditions under the watchful eye of the white person. This created automatic solidarity of all black workers in these conditions, both South African and foreign black nationals. We lived together in squalor around these mines, having to make do with the little that was provided in the form of slave wages. In most cases, the comingling of peoples from across the continent was an acceptable thing.
As for the exile years during our apartheid period, we co-existed among many foreign nationals in far-flung African countries. For this, we remain eternally indebted. But we cannot also conveniently ignore some of the harsh realities.
The uneven nature of opportunities in many African nations leads to people seeking out better opportunities in other countries. Many flock to South Africa in search of better conditions and better opportunities related to work and education. If opportunities were available in their own countries, we would not observe so much inward migration into South Africa.
Similarly, it does not help that South Africa is experiencing low economic growth, with poverty, inequality and unemployment spiralling out of control. Where there are scarce resources to go around, one can expect more acute contestation for such resources from all quarters, including the migrant communities. They too want to earn a living. In a country with more than 27% unemployment, of which the largest percentage is young black people, we are asking for a problem.
Another sobering reality is the fact that predominantly white-owned businesses, in the hospitality industry in particular but not exclusively, also contribute to this untenable situation of employing almost exclusively foreign nationals at the expense of locals. Does it require such specialised skill sets to be a waiter in a restaurant? Or a delivery person?
In the US, the unemployment level hits a mere 8% and they clamour for a wall to separate them from the perceived threat, the Mexicans. They demand tighter border controls – draconian measures, where children are separated from their parents and incarcerated in different holding facilities.
Another reality is that South Africa is also seen as the new neo-colonial power on the continent and that breeds jealousy and resentment towards South African businesses and its citizens.
Can we rightfully only blame our government? Can we put this matter squarely at the president’s feet or is it about our own mindset that must continue to evolve around issues of migration and immigration, about labour mobility in this globalised world? About skill sets and skilled labour migration? Is it as simple as border control for SARS, or home affairs rules and regulations about visas?
Why is it so difficult to accept these realities? To discuss them openly and candidly in order to find real and lasting solutions to the recurrent situation?
Certainly, a large contributor to this unfortunate situation is the lack of leadership. Leadership in the workplace, in the house, in our churches, in civil society and our government.
Leadership is needed to educate, direct the anger and frustration of people and address the mitigating factors in this equation.
There is no one solution that fits all, but we need an approach on numerous fronts to begin to confront this criminality that is causing undue tension between our countries.
South Africans don’t hate foreigners, on the contrary, we are because of you. DM