Moshood Babatunde Abdul-Wasi
Xenophobia is defined as hatred or fear of foreigners. Deriving its
root from the Greek word xenos (foreign) and phobos (fear). In the
context of South Africa, the term has come to mean a constant dislike
expressed aggressively towards non-South Africans. In that regard,
Afro-phobia on the other hand is the fear and hatred shown toward
fellow black Africans.
The task here beyond conceptual clarification, as no amount of fear or hatred anyone may hold against the other, can justify the spate of violent attack witnessed in the past weeks in South Africa.
The questions which arise from here are: can the killing of fellow human beings be a reflection of the fear and hatred that a particular race or people hold against the other groups? What are the underlining narratives and factors responsible for such fear and action? And what are the roles expected of various country’s heads to be able to forestall and bring an end to this dastardly acts against humanity?
The xenophobic attack in South Africa dates back to the period of apartheid, where varying restriction policies on immigration were adopted by different states. During this period, refugees from Mozambique, Congo were not allowed to take refuge in the country but were rather pushed to the fringe. Most of these refugees were denied
access to primary healthcare of which they were technically entitled.
The discriminatory attitudes learned under the apartheid regime helped to further fan the ember of hatred even after the end of apartheid. This however took a violent dimension with the emergence of “New South Africa” after its freedom in 1994.
The 1994 witnessed the ascendance of ANC as a post-apartheid government. In its attempts to overcome the divides of the past and build new forms of social cohesion, the government embarked on an inclusive nation-building project.
Post-apartheid South Africa was followed with an upsurge in migration to South Africa by other Africans from different parts of the continent especially at a time when these countries were engulfed by violent conflicts. The new
government of South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela was also very welcoming to the African migrants as the government saw that as an opportunity to return the great support of other Africans in their liberation struggle.
Sadly, shortly after this euphoria, an increasing feeling that the migrants have become parasites in South Africa amongst the black population became popular. Most especially, they began perceiving the foreign citizens as depriving them of jobs and benefits in their own country. No thanks to poor service delivery and economic mismanagement by the ruling ANC government.
In 2008, the accumulated frustration exploded which informed the xenophobic violence that caught the attention of the world for which 67 people were brutally killed. Disturbingly, the recent attack was caused by the inciting statement credited to an influential Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, who in his statement said ‘the entire foreigner should leave the country before 1st of April, 2015’.
He said they (the foreigners) are ‘lice that must be removed from the hair’. The king has however said that his words were taken out of context, that those he was referring to are the illegal immigrants who constitute nuisance and menace to the society.
Unfortunately, the engulfing violence sparked by this statement is worse than the ones experienced in the past, as the violence which erupted in the township in Durban, like wildfire, spread to Gauteng Province in Johannesburg.
In the ensuing violence, seven people were reportedly killed, while thousands of foreigners were forced to flee their homes, with their properties and shops looted.
It was shocking to see the footage of human beings being roasted alive like chickens; the inhumanity of man against his fellow breed got to the peak, where the xenophobes were cutting human beings like goat, rejoicing over their murderous acts and delighted by their victims’ wail of agony.
It is important to note that the attacks were carefully planned, as there have been clandestine text messages sent to people that there was going to be an attack against foreigners on Wednesday the 1st of April, 2015, but this warning was considered by many a hoax.
But what could have been the causes and motivating factors for these repeated attacks? A report by the Human Sciences Research Council identified four broad causes of this repeated violence. They include: relative deprivation,
involving specifically, intense competition for jobs commodities, and housing.
The second one is cauterised as group processes, including psychological categorisation processes that are nationalistic rather than super-ordinate. The third is South Africa exceptionalism, or a feeling of superiority; and lastly, exclusive citizenship, or a form of nationalism.
While all these may sound academic, subsequent report by the International Organisation for Migration discovered that poor service delivery and influx of foreigners may have played a contributory role, but blamed the spate of attacks on township politics. It found that community leadership was potentially lucrative for unemployed people,
and that such leaders organised the attack.
The report concludes that such leaders enhance, and consolidate their authority by reinforcing resentment towards foreigners. Putting all these narratives into perspective, the theories that best explain the spate of xenophobic attacks are: One, the socio-economic inequality in the country.
Most of the attacks which happened were perpetrated in the townships where foreign nationals compete with the impoverished South Africans to eke out a menial living.
Two, the lukewarm disposition of the government which encourages culture of impunity and in turn makes people who attack foreign nationals feel there will be no negative consequence for their actions. Do foreign nationals actually deprive the locals their privileges?
The truth of the matter is that foreign nationals do not in any way deprive or take jobs that are meant for the locals. In an interview conducted with a Somali by the South Africa Broadcasting Commission, he said that when he came into South Africa, the only thing given to him by the South African government was paper of residence; but through a dint of hard work, he struggled to raise fund to start his small business, and that it was only the grace of God that turned his small business into a big store. And now, the shop has been looted!
There is another case of a Congolese woman who stays around my area in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. She started her wares with the small money passers-bye used to give her, and today, her business is growing. There are a host of examples which point to the fact that, the so-called foreigners alleged to be ‘stealing’ the job of the locals, actually work very hard to become employers of labour, the thorny path the locals are unwilling to take.
This position is corroborated by Dr Sally Peberdy former Project Manager for the Southern African Migration Project in Johannesburg and a Senior Researcher at the Gauteng City-Region Observatory when he argued that international migrants do play a positive role in South Africa.
She avers that “evidence shows they contribute to South Africans by providing jobs, paying rent, paying VAT and providing affordable and convenient goods”. The observatory’s study found that 31% of the 618 international
migrant traders interviewed rented properties from South Africans.
Collectively they also employed 1,223 people, of which 503 were South Africans. In fact the crisis which started in March this year according to the South African Minister of Labour started as an industrial dispute between an employer (international migrant) and his employee (local), before it later became a security issue.
There is also an argument that the South African immigration policy which tacitly intends to eliminate substantial foreign presence may well explain the lukewarm disposition of the state to the hate campaign against foreign nationals.
It is however baffling to note that at this era where advanced nations are working towards furthering integration among their countries, African states are consciously imposing barricades on their borders. The whole population of Africa is 1.1 billion, a little higher than that of Europe, and United States of America which are 742.5 million and 318.9 million people respectively, but less than that of China and India which are 1.400,463,437 billion and 1,279,877,960 billion respectively.
Impliedly, it means that the whole Africa is not more than just a country. Hence, if the complaints and excuses for bad service delivery are predicated on the influx of foreigners, and population explosion in some African countries, then such argument is lame, fallacious, and not tenable. Such unfounded argument can only but be located within
the context of bad governance.
Advising the government on the need to arrest the scourge of xenophobia in the state, the Nelson Mandela Foundation stresses the need to deepen democracy; entrench and defend the constitution, together with the drive to eradicate poverty, inequality and corruption that are served with compassion, respect, integrity and tolerance, all of which must be given paramount considerations in governance.
The Foundation concludes that xenophobia, racism and sexism must be fought with tenacity, wisdom and enlightenment. Thus, the need to deepen the democratic institution of various African states is of essence. Good governance and the need to foster unity among African states are very pertinent.
Individual country should endeavour to maintain stability locally and be responsive to the needs of its citizens at home and abroad.
When countries operate on equal pedestal, the stress and agony that citizens are often exposed to in foreign lands will be nonexistent. Little wonder that the kind of attack being carried out against the black immigrants in South Africa cannot be extended to the whites.
The reason is simple; the impression that an attack on one white man may spell doom for the whole country resonates like thunder. At this juncture, Nigeria as a Giant of Africa has a very big role to play.
The title of Big Brother Africa needs be reviewed and put into proper perspectives if it must be respected as it used to be in the comity of nations.
The position of the Nigerian government should be very firm and decisive in this kind of situation where lives are
wantonly lost. Its foreign policy thrust at this time, as already espoused by foreign affairs professionals like Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi, and security experts like Dr Femi Adegbulu should be based on reciprocity.
The present lame duck approach being experienced under President Goodluck Jonathan where non-professionals are made to direct the affairs of foreign affairs ministry and where decisions or stands are taken based on primordial sentiments rather than object considerations predicated on the vision of the country’s founding fathers must be re-directed.
Government should be proactive through its prompt and constructive engagement, making affirmative statement would also help to send jitters down the spines of the South African government. In actual fact, the little effort made so far to arrest the situation this time around by the South African government was because there were spontaneous reaction across the continent.
While South African workers in Mozambique were sent home; Zambians stopped playing, broadcasting and airing of South Africa music in solidarity with victims of xenophobia just as Nigerians threatened to boycott South African
products and services. Consequently, protests across Nigeria and fears of reprisal attacks made South Africa close its High Commission in Nigeria.
To prevent the recurrence of this wicked phenomenon, the South African government must make sure those arrested in connection with this obnoxious act are brought to book to discourage culture of impunity, because an injustice to one is an injustice to all. With this, the battered image of South Africa may also be redeemed.
Back home in Nigeria, as a long time measure, the government should as a matter of urgency deepen its democracy, provide necessary infrastructures, and enhance good governance so that it could rightly assume its pride of place in the continent and the world at large.
A Nigerian proverbial saying holds that ‘when the host begins to display showing the visitor the remnant of a yam, it is an indication that the time is up (for the guest) to leave!’
Should this culture of impunity continue in South Africa, a time will come when the story of apartheid would no longer be relevant, as people will conclude that South Africans actually deserved what they went through (during apartheid period) if they could be this callous to their fellow Africans.
Abdul-Wasi is a Ph.D Student in Pietermaritzburg in South Africa.