Xenophobia? What xenophobia, we love foreigners!


Once again South Africa’s government has been caught off guard by a spate of attacks by locals on foreign African nationals. And once again it is scrambling to draft a plan to tackle the problem – seemingly without grasping why several past plans have failed.

The latest attacks happened mainly in the eastern province of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Though facts are hazy, it seems two South Africans were killed while attacking foreign-owned shops. In retaliation locals went on the rampage against a nearby settlement of foreigners, mainly Malawians, causing about 300 to flee for their lives.

Concerned African ambassadors met cabinet ministers – international relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu and police minister Bheki Cele – and drafted a joint plan to tackle the problem. But why will this plan succeed where previous ones didn’t? Attacks on foreigners – mainly Zimbabweans and Mozambicans – have occurred often since before the deadly 2008 spate. Attacks spiked again in 2015. And last week’s violence showed signs of expanding.

A sinister message put out on social media and sent directly to many, including some African ambassadors, threatened that all foreigners would be attacked ‘mercilessly’ unless they left the country by 13 May.

Government has failed to recognise that xenophobia is behind many of the attacks on foreigners

After each spike in attacks, Pretoria has drafted plans to address the problem. In 2015 it assembled an inter-ministerial committee to tackle it. And ironically the Department of Justice posted the latest plan, the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, on 25 March – a day before the latest attacks.

Loren Landau, an expert on migration, xenophobia and diversity at the University of the Witwatersrand, says in The Conversation that the plan ‘offers frail remedies to poorly diagnosed problems’. He says it ‘relies on perceptions and politics rather than facts’ and that it ‘almost totally’ overlooks xenophobia.

The plan rehashes ‘familiar – but empirically questionable – claims that inequality and economic competition breed resentment and attacks on foreigners. But nowhere does it describe the local business interests, gangs, community leaders and political officials who typically foment xenophobic attacks’. Landau says it also fails to condemn the local, provincial and national politicians ‘who regularly blame foreigners for their own failures to deliver services as well as economic and physical security’.

That might be changing. African ambassadors say they persuaded Sisulu and Cele to instruct Cele’s deputy Bongani Mkongi to recant a vicious xenophobic statement about foreign Africans committing ‘economic sabotage’ and threatening to overrun the country. The ambassadors said that although he made the statement two years ago, the video remained viral and he had never repudiated it, so it still incited xenophobia.

Mkongi had warned that it was unacceptable that 80% of a South African ‘city’ – by which he meant Johannesburg’s rundown Hillbrow suburb – was ‘foreign national’ and that if nothing was done about it, the whole country would become ‘80% foreign national’ and the country’s president would eventually be a ‘foreign national’.

40% of South Africans would act to stop foreigners from starting businesses or accessing services

Mkongi insisted that his remarks weren’t xenophobic, which seemed to symbolise the whole government’s failure to recognise that xenophobia was behind many of the attacks on foreigners. This denialism seems to lie at the root of its failure to address the problem.

And next month’s national elections only seem to be fuelling the problem. Last week President Cyril Ramaphosa told an election rally that government would crack down on undocumented foreigners. The opposition Democratic Alliance is no better. Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba has been condemning foreign immigrants for years and his party has an election platform of getting tough on them.

After meeting the African ambassadors last week, Sisulu said Ramaphosa and the ruling ANC both believed the problem was ‘pure criminality’. However she also hinted that government might now take a wider view, after hearing the ambassadors who clearly believe the attacks are motivated by xenophobia – or ‘Afrophobia’ as some call it, as most victims are African.

‘While the ANC may not want to admit it, there is a very real problem of xenophobia in SA,’ says Gareth Newham, head of the Justice and Violence Prevention programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). He said a 2017 paper by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation on Social Cohesion between South Africans and African foreigners found that South Africans lacked trust in people from other African countries – 56% didn’t trust African foreign nationals; 17% did.

Around 40% of South Africans said they would stop foreign nationals from starting businesses or accessing services in the areas where they lived. About 20% supported the government removing all foreign nationals irrespective of their legal status.

Government must stop scapegoating foreigners for its own failure to deliver services to its people

Newham said attacks continued partly because South Africans know they can get away with it, as the police rarely act against perpetrators. He said short-term interventions could include politicians and influential people – such as local musicians, actors, celebrities and the media – speaking out against xenophobia and promoting cohesion with African foreigners.

Police should be more active in gathering intelligence to pre-empt attacks, and arrest and prosecute perpetrators. ‘There also needs to be efforts to address the xenophobic attitudes held by many police officials and action must be taken against them.’

Stephanie Wolters, Senior Research Fellow at ISS, says xenophobic eruptions over the years ‘have already done substantial damage to South Africa’s reputation in the rest of Africa’. Coupled with restrictive visa policies, this has discouraged many highly skilled African immigrants from settling in and travelling to South Africa – with significant economic implications.

Ramaphosa implicitly acknowledged the harmful economic impact, promising after last week’s attacks that police would crack down on perpetrators. He said ‘our economy and society benefit from our extensive trade and investment relations with partners on our continent’, many of whom were living in South Africa and ‘making important contributions to the development of our country’.

‘African development depends on the increased movement of people, goods and services between different countries for all of us to benefit. We will not allow criminals to set back these processes,’ Ramaphosa added.

Loren says the government must stop scapegoating foreigners for its own failure to deliver services and economic opportunities to its people. The experts agree that South Africa can’t wait for economic equality before tackling xenophobia. In fact, it is often xenophobia that is hurting economic opportunity, especially in our vital African markets. 

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

In South Africa, Daily Maverick has exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles. For media based outside South Africa and queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.

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