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Understanding xenophobia – first define it, then put it into context


Ebrahim Rasool is former ANC WC Chairperson & Premier. He has served as South Africas Ambassador to the USA. He has been President of the World for All Foundation and Senior Fellow at Georgetown University. He is Head of Elections, Western Cape ANC.

The pathology of discrimination and anger is not directed at all foreigners, but at those who are encountered daily, in an environment of scarce resources, and in an atmosphere of general insecurity and vulnerability.

In recent times I was requested to provide a perspective on the attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa by investors from across the world who do business here. Traditionally these investors have been able to lure their best managers, engineers and other categories of skills to South Africa, based on the history of our country, the natural beauty of places like Cape Town, and the lifestyle options offered by our country. Obviously, xenophobia would be a major impediment to such transfers and investors.

A definitional debate?

The phenomenon of violence against people of other nationalities in South Africa has sparked a debate about whether these are manifestations of xenophobia, which official government responses have tried to steer away from, given that South Africa has a history of leading the fight against any form of discrimination, from racism to sexism. If indeed it were xenophobia, mostly against other African nationals, it would be an indictment on South Africa and would be compounded by the fact of Africa’s hospitality to South African freedom fighters during apartheid. Hence the president of South Africa sent a group of special envoys to convey the government’s apology to African nations.

But the question of xenophobia must be measured against some working definition of the phenomenon. According to Wikipedia:

Xenophobia is the fear or hatred of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange. Xenophobia can involve perceptions of an ingroup toward an outgroup and can manifest itself in suspicion of the activities of others, and a desire to eliminate their presence to secure a presumed purity and may relate to a fear of losing national, ethnic or racial identity.”

Against this definition, especially if local economic interests are factored in, South Africa has to go back to about the mid-2000s (particularly in 2008) to trace the rise of violence against foreign nationals to make sense of this phenomenon. When the violence reached its peak, the Thabo Mbeki government convened high-level interventions to mourn and prevent it. In the Western Cape, where this violence threatened before 2007, preventative measures were put in place, resulting in the lowest levels of violence and deaths, showing that active programmes can be effective.

What is the presence of foreign nationals in SA?

The figures of net migration to South Africa have a broad agreement, between the official figures of Stats SA and the United Nations, that about four million people from outside South Africa have entered over the last three decades. At the height of the Zimbabwe crisis, South Africa was the highest recipient of migration in the world. Partly, migration to South Africa has been facilitated by relatively easy conditions of migration. It has been quite easy to receive refugee status for those caught up in conflicts, and similarly, impediments to employment and opening a business have been fewer, and migrants have also enjoyed social benefits available to South Africans as in healthcare and education.

Where is most of the migration coming from?

Stats SA shows that for this period, about 3.5 million migrants to South Africa originate from Africa, about 100,000 from countries in Asia, and the rest from the EU. The UN figures indicate that about two million are from our immediate neighbours, with Zimbabwe the highest. The rest of the African migrants are split between countries such as the DRC, Nigeria and Somalia. The main drivers of African migration to South Africa have been conflict at home, failed political governance and economic collapse. Skilled migrants have also found South Africa a place for the optimal usage of their skills with better remuneration.

Has there been a general attack on foreigners by South Africans?

In the last round of attacks in 2019, while foreigners have been targeted, it was, in fact, true that most who were casualties of the attacks were South Africans. The president confirmed that in this period, 10 people were killed and of those, two were foreign nationals, with the rest being South Africans.

Second, the attacks have not been against all foreign nationals. By origin, those who come from European and Middle Eastern descent seem to have been exempted from any attacks. The attacks have been particularly aimed at those of African and South Asian origin.

Third, those bearing the brunt of the attacks are those who live, work or do business in close proximity to South Africans in the poorest areas of South Africa, indicating that xenophobia is a manifestation of a battle for scarce resources. The main complaints have been about foreigners taking South African jobs, out-competing their SA counterparts in business, being able to buy socio-economic houses from South Africans and renting them out to others, and the increase in the levels of criminality.

This may indicate that the pathology of discrimination and anger is not directed at all foreigners, but at those who are encountered daily, in an environment of scarce resources, and in an atmosphere of general insecurity and vulnerability. Often the presence of bigotry, as in xenophobia, is precisely in the differential power relations: it manifests where foreigners have relatively no power, not where they have the power to protect themselves and where they are less vulnerable.

Is the counter-xenophobia argument of ‘causes’ valid?

There is validity to the argument that some of the causes of these attacks, when scrutinised, are legitimate.

First, it is true that African leaders need to do better in their own countries to stop conflicts and facilitate socio-economic development that could effectively stop migration, but these are long-term programmes.

Second, it is true that some African migrants are involved in illegal activities such as drug dealing, fraud and other criminal acts, but once you ascribe a generalised nationality to crime, you enter the terrain of xenophobia.

Third, it is true that migrants who come from countries where the state has been historically weak, and they relied on their own individual ingenuity and entrepreneurial abilities, are often out-competing South Africans in doing business – but these are vacuums caused by SA conditions, not those who fill the vacuums.

In short, there are causes which can lead to conflict, violence and killing, but these causes in the mouth of a populist, a demagogue, a bigot, an unscrupulous politician, lead to situations where – in xenophobic ways – the target is identified as an “other”, the aggrieved are mobilised into blind fury, and criminality is justified.

Xenophobia or simple criminality?

Again, without equivocation, all acts of looting, arson, robbery, assault and murder are acts of criminality and must be prevented, stopped and prosecuted, without regard to causal factors or aggravating circumstances. But in South Africa’s Bill of Rights, incitement to conflict and hate speech are outlawed as are established crimes like drug dealing, fraud and so forth. Therefore, while crimes are sometimes committed in groups they are not group crimes. They must be criminally prosecuted individually.

It is often a failure of law enforcement – from intelligence gathering and analysis to preventive policing to prosecution – that has not managed the whole conveyor belt of criminality: infractions of the law by foreign nationals; hate speech and incitement by the community and political leaders, and attacks on foreign nationals. In short, a climate of impunity has been allowed to gestate in SA.

What are the South African government and society doing?

  1. There is still too much ambiguity and definitional debate from our country’s leadership. We need unequivocally to send out a message that while the causes are understood, and while we can identify clear acts of criminality on three sides, all of these instrumentalise the identity, the otherness, the foreignness of people. This is no different to Donald Trump instrumentalising xenophobia by decrying immigration policy and attributing individual crimes to a national group.

  2. The issue of the weakness of law enforcement is on the table and clearly is up for strengthening, despite the fact that this weakness allows gender-based violence and other crimes in South Africa as well. South Africa needs a general assault on impunity, from prosecuting the high command of corruption to taxi drivers who flout traffic laws, to tax evaders.

  3. The president, in the face of a backlash from Africa, has apologised, despatched envoys to African capitals and undertaken to take measurable steps against all criminality, and already some of those burning, looting and assaulting have been arrested and face prosecution. A clear message also needs to be sent to those who incite conflict and use hate speech that transforms criminal acts into xenophobic acts.

  4. It is a double-edged sword to admit that this is not violence directed at all foreigners, but especially at those who share the scramble for scarce resources at the coal face of poverty, while those with lighter skins are relatively immune to such attacks. It may be understood that South Africa has not recovered from three centuries of colonial occupation, racial segregation, and the bigotry of apartheid, and we may need to have a conversation about our troubled history with identity, not as the victors over apartheid, but as ongoing victims who carry the strain of the very thing we despise, from racism to misogyny to xenophobia and other forms of prejudice and discrimination.

  5. There seems to be some interest in recalling what the Western Cape did in the mid-2000s when attacks on foreign nationals first broke out. Here I don’t refer to the secondary violence in 2008 when victims of attacks were dumped in tents on isolated, cold and wet beaches around Cape Town, but the active attempts at social cohesion by building bridges across difference, facilitating entrepreneurial skills transfers, targeting action against spaza shop owners who hired criminals to burn and loot their foreign competitors, and setting up early warning systems that could trigger mediation efforts or policing interventions. DM


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