Incidents of xenophobic violence initially started off in yearly periods when the first big xenophobic moment happened in 2008 and we all marched against it. Yet, since then, the incidents have become more frequent – and horrifyingly more violent. Notably, there are now fewer people marching in the streets and decrying the violence.
Xenophobia needs to be understood within the South African context, where we have a population that has shrinking access to economic opportunities and therefore increasing poverty and unemployment. Add to that a growing sense of right-leaning conservatism and protectionism, and we have a powder keg ready to explode.
It’s always telling to note where incidents of xenophobia happen. I’ll give you a clue: it’s not in the leafy green suburbs with the perfectly manicured lawns and sprawling yards. It’s where the domestic workers who take care of the houses in these leafy green suburbs and the gardeners who trim the hedges of those manicured lawns live that it takes place. That is, in the central business district, low-income areas, townships and informal settlements.
Over the past three to five years the world has seen a steady rise in right-wing nationalist politics, with many countries, particularly in the North, conspicuously closing their borders to displaced migrants and refugees. This is, of course, despite some of these countries contributing to the destabilisation of the countries from which asylum seekers come.
South Africans are frustrated and the country’s institutions are not being responsive to the growing desperation.
In 2019, the government committed to the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. If you were unaware of this, don’t worry, you are not alone. The Anti-Xenophobia pledge contained in the plan states: “I pledge to reject all violence and discrimination against people from other countries. We are one people, we will not be divided. I will act to Stop Xenophobia.”
The plan also says it was done in consultation with civil society organisations, but I’m wondering what this means to ordinary people on the street.
I struggle to reconcile with a country that would allow violence in the form of an uncaring, incapacitated and paralysed state that seems to accept poverty and the inequitable distribution of resources as the norm. This breeds an increasingly frustrated, angry working class and an increasingly disaffected middle class.
There have been and continue to be many warnings from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UN Refugee Agency, South African civil society organisations and ordinary South Africans themselves. Yet we see no decisive action from our government.
It is ineffective for a national government to make plans that do not translate, or are not responsive, to the basic needs of people on the ground. Xenophobia is not about ideology but a very real sense of marginalisation and poverty. So you have to meet people where they are, even if the vision is greater than just subsistence. There is a saying: “A hungry man is an angry man”. Lofty pledges will not help to alleviate the immediate concern – food.
The analogy is simple: I feel unseen, unheard and uncared for by my government and have little to no money to care for myself and family because employment opportunities are scarce. Then someone from outside my country not only takes up space in my neighbourhood but also seems to be thriving when I am not. So the conflict brews.
It is naive and out of touch to think that reshaping people’s sentiments of suspicion and ill-will towards refugees and migrants will be tackled without first addressing our unemployment and poverty crisis. It is also wrong, however, to have a state of lawlessness in which people brandish machine guns like AK-47s without sanction. That cannot be condoned.
I am inherently an optimist and one who aspires to uphold the values of social justice and human rights, but these ideals are not located in a suspended reality. If I am to believe that human rights are indivisible – as envisaged in our Constitution – then it stands to reason that once people are denied their rights to dignity, healthcare, food, water and social security, an uprising will ensue. These are rights guaranteed to both South Africans and non-South Africans living in the country.
What does this tell us?
It tells us that xenophobic sentiment is not simply about intolerance. That would be a fruitless, reductionist view.It is symptomatic of a society in which people’s basic needs are being ignored, and the resultant frustration. It is a human rights crisis that we cannot afford to ignore. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.