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The political agency of xenophobia and xenophobic violence in South Africa: A call for responsible leadership

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Tatenda Mazarura is a Human Rights Defender, a professional rapporteur, an election specialist and a Regional Information and Advocacy Officer at the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition.

South Africa is home to millions of immigrants, mainly from Lesotho, Nigeria, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The regional giant has played an immense role for more than a century in attracting labour for its large economy. But this has come at a cost. While the influx of migrants continues as a result of several push-and-pull factors, the question arises: how and/or will coexistence with increasingly anxious locals be possible?

One of the major challenges facing migrants in South Africa is xenophobia and xenophobic violence. The worst wave to date, the nationwide attacks on migrants and refugees in 2008, was followed by a second round of nationwide xenophobic violence in early 2015 when migrant-owned businesses were targeted by mobs. Scores of people have died unimaginably violent deaths.

Over the years these attacks have increasingly targeted migrants and refugees, including many Zimbabweans, seeking to make a living in the country’s urban informal economy. 

It seems the season is back again.

Operation Dudula’: Another wave, another missed opportunity

Now, Operation Dudula, a Soweto-born movement comprising residents of Soweto and Alexandra, is wreaking havoc, reportedly targeting foreign traders and alleged criminals – spreading the call to #PutSouthAfricansFirst. 

Migrant-owned informal businesses are being systematically targeted while “illegal migrants” are being forcefully evicted from their rented homes and marketplaces in areas such as Johannesburg’s Turffontein, Alexandra and Hillbrow. 

The hashtag #PutSouthAfricansFirst has become prominent on social media (trending almost daily), calling on government and the private sector to prioritise local jobs for South Africans over foreigners, while accusing undocumented foreigners of being responsible for rising crime in communities, as well as running drug and prostitution syndicates, among other social ills. 

As Operation Dudula intensifies, many immigrant traders and shopkeepers now live in fear. For most Zimbabweans, returning to Zimbabwe is not a viable option because of the economic and political conditions there. 

Causes and facilitators of anti-immigrant sentiment: Political cheap shots and reckless rhetoric at the centre

Last week, the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, which comprises more than 75 civil society organisations and focuses on democracy, human rights, good governance and sustainable development, hosted a Twitter Space to reflect on the possibility of coexistence among South Africans and other Africans in the country. 

Dr Vusumuzi Sibanda, president and CEO of the African Diaspora Global Network, lamented that in order to address the challenges of the migration crisis, one needs to look at the causes of xenophobia and the natural hatred of other Africans in South Africa. As in many parts of the world where a significant and in most cases growing portion of the population comprises migrants, immigration is an emotive issue and, to politicians’ delight, an election issue. 

Sibanda criticised right-wing extremists and politicians in South Africa for often using political opportunism and populism to blow issues of migration and poor service delivery out of proportion by attributing government failure to service its people to the influx of migrants:

“For a while now, there are people in government and in opposition parties that have always preyed on the issue of migration. They blame migrants for crime and as the people that make it difficult for the government to deliver housing and adequate hospital facilities,” noted Sibanda.

While acknowledging that migrants do commit crime, he insisted that crime must be addressed as a human phenomenon, not an exclusively migrant phenomenon, arguing that, just like natives, if migrants commit crime they must face the full wrath of the law. 

Sibanda bemoaned the resurgence of xenophobia in South Africa, which he believes is hinged on the principle of divide and rule by incumbents and those trying to get into power, in order to mislead the people, diverting their attention from real governance issues. 

Anti-immigrant sentiment a function of governance crisis in South Africa and its regional neighbourhood

While Africa may have attained political independence, there remains a gap in terms of properly applying effective public policy, democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law. The failure of governments in the region to abide by even the minimum governance standards sets in motion the phenomenon of forced or involuntary migration from one’s country to another. 

When migrants arrive in South Africa, which is facing its own economic and governance challenges, the stage is set and all that is required is for immigrants to be blamed for everything. All that is required to detonate the “bomb” is a simple trigger in any form. 

Sibanda accused politicians of brainwashing communities by controlling access to information and interfering with press freedoms: 

The information put out there by our leaders is information that is meant to vilify certain groups of people and make other people feel inadequate rather than to educate people and make them realise that they are the ones that can hold governments to account, because they vote governments into power and can always take them out of power.

The ability of South Africans and migrants to coexist lies with removing the prejudices that have been sowed into people’s minds, such as the simplistic “microphone statements” that if migrants are kicked out of South Africa there will be better job opportunities and better service delivery, among other things. Targeting foreigners is just a fallacy and a diversion from the government’s failure to deliver on its promises and obligations.

Sibanda concluded by urging civil society organisations to provide adequate civic education to the people of Africa so they understand and appreciate the power they have. The people must be empowered so they can hold African leaders, the Southern African Development Community and the African Union to account for presiding over sham elections and poor democracies, and start demanding political and economic stability instead of fighting among themselves. 

Speaking on the same platform, Dr Trevor Ngwane, one of the Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia organisers, a movement formed in February 2022 in response to attacks on immigrants, added that the struggle against xenophobia is a struggle to complete the revolution and end all forms of exploitation and oppression in South Africa, the African continent and throughout the world: 

Xenophobia presents an attempt to use the old colonisers’ tactic of divide and rule, instead of us uniting with each other and demanding land, jobs, our factories and our minerals back. Instead, we start fighting over scraps from the master’s table.

Ngwane expressed concern that these tactics of fighting poverty and inequality favour the exploiter, the oppressor and the former coloniser: 

Certainly, the minds of the ordinary people are still owned by the bourgeois. Many ordinary working-class people find themselves without skills, without hope, and many of them are still stuck in the ghetto, in the shacks and townships. 

But instead of challenging their government, they are now being influenced by the bourgeois, especially the black bourgeois who are enriching themselves by scapegoating immigrants. So, this is part of a bigger strategy to defend capitalism, the new black elite and the old white monopoly capitalism.

Ngwane said that winning the fight against xenophobia hinges on collective efforts by the ordinary people of Africa:

We must abolish colonial borders that force us to render our African brothers and sisters as illegal foreigners and go with the pan-Africanism spirit of Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba. We must unite against the bourgeois class, our former exploiters, and the new aspirant black bourgeois. We must unite as the exploited and the oppressed and fight for a better life. Whether you come from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Malawi, South Africa, let us unite as the oppressed, speak with one voice and say no to xenophobia!

The now predictable cyclical episodes of xenophobic violence in South Africa is an embarrassing blight on the very idea of African solidarity and oneness that the regional leaders espouse at every opportunity. Besides being responsible for fanning the flames, it is tragic that there seems to be no real political will to address this phenomenon from a systemic and genuine position. 

As long as selfish politicians put a premium on whipping up emotions for narrow political gains, the noble dream of a united Africa so gallantly fought for by the continent’s icons such as Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Robert Mugabe, Julius Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah, will forever be delayed. 

In the main, governments in and around South Africa have an urgent obligation to reset their governance systems in a manner that is people-focused through deliberate broad-based development agendas. Countries like Zimbabwe are so rich in minerals; in normal circumstances there shouldn’t be such a daily influx of illegal immigrants to South Africa.

Xenophobia is unnecessary and avoidable and the solution is not even magical: we just need to get back to basics in the form of good governance in the region as well as responsible leadership, especially at the epicentre – South Africa. DM/MC

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