Accra, Sept. 10 - Xenophobia refers to prejudice against people from other countries. South Africa does not have a xenophobia problem. I say this because there are thousands of immigrants from European countries in South Africa. These - mainly white - foreigners have never been attacked in my country, and probably never will.
South Africans don’t rage against all foreigners – just the poor, black ones from Africa. We are guilty of Afrophobia, not xenophobia.
Violent Afrophobia plays out regularly in South Africa. In recent days, small businesses owned mainly by Nigerians, Somalians, and Congolese were looted and attacked in Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Africa’s response to the deplorable violence has been swift. Nigeria recalled its ambassador to South Africa. The South Africa High Commissions in Lagos and Lubumbashi were shut down in fear of retaliatory attacks. Zambia and Madagascar cancelled football matches against Bafana Bafana. Air Tanzania has suspended flights. Nigerian superstars Burna Boy and Tiwa Savage cancelled upcoming performances in Johannesburg.
Across the continent, South African businesses felt the economic impact of the violence in Johannesburg. Shoprite, MTN, Multichoice and Mr. Price Stores were forced to close amid threats of retaliatory attacks.
Calls to boycott South African-owned businesses on the continent are getting louder. There have also been rumblings that the African Union should not allow Cyril Ramaphosa to become its chairperson next year.
South Africa’s reputation on the continent is in tatters, and deservedly so.
Who is to blame? South Africa’s political leadership must bear responsibility for this fiasco.
Blame it on the African migrants
More than half of South Africa’s population lives in poverty. Unemployment stands at 30%. Thirteen percent of South Africans live in informal settlements. One-third of South Africans don’t have access to running water. These problems are a combination of our apartheid past and rampant corruption and mismanagement within the post-1994 ANC-led government. Crime is climbing, mainly due to the country’s corrupt and dysfunctional policing services, high unemployment and systemic poverty.
Yet, listening to politicians from the government and the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) one gets the impression that African migrants are the cause of South Africa’s problems.
Politicians claim that foreigners are flooding South Africa and undermining the country’s security and prosperity. The DA argues that African foreigners are the cause of high unemployment rates because they steal jobs from South Africans. They are also the main reason for high crime rates.
Both the government and the DA have proposed building higher fences at the border to prevent foreigners from coming into the country.
Immigrants are blamed for the hardships experienced by poor South Africans. With migrants as the scapegoats, South Africa’s political leadership doesn’t have to be held accountable for stealing from its own people and for failing to provide basic services or create jobs.
Johannesburg’s own Donald Trump
Leading the anti-immigrant charge is Johannesburg’s DA mayor, Herman Mashaba. He has regularly describes black African migrants as criminals and has spoken of the need for a “shock-and-awe” campaign to drive them out.
In February 2019, Mashaba diverted attention away from demonstrations against the DA’s poor service delivery in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township by tweeting that foreigners had made it difficult for his administration to provide proper service to citizens.
Ahead of elections this year, the DA even adopted the slogan “All South Africans First” which was called out for being anti-immigrant.
The government’s anti-African immigration policies
Even those within the ANC-led government share these sentiments.
According to researcher, Savo Heleta, in 2017, South Africa’s deputy police minister claimed that the city of Johannesburg was taken over by foreigners, with 80% of the city controlled by them. If this is not urgently stopped, he added, the entire country “could be 80% dominated by foreign nationals and the future president of South Africa could be a foreign national.”
The government has already developed and approved anti-African immigration plans.
The White Paper on International Migration, approved by the government in March 2017, separates immigrants into “worthy” and “unworthy” individuals. “Foreigners who have skills and money are welcomed and can stay in South Africa permanently.
Poor and unskilled immigrants, who are predominantly from the African continent, will be prevented from coming to and staying in South Africa by any means, ‘even if this is labelled anti-African behaviour’ as the former Minister of Home Affairs, Hlengiwe Mkhize, pointed out in June 2017,” explains Heleta.
The government sees poor and unskilled African migrants and asylum seekers as a threat to the country’s security and prosperity.
Fact verses Fiction
None of this anti-immigrant rhetoric is based on fact. Constituting just 3% of the South African population, statistics show that immigrants aren’t stealing jobs from South Africans. Crimes committed by migrants do not even put a dent in South Africa’s crime statistics.
There are criminals among migrants, but not all migrants are criminals. South Africa’s crime problem has little to do with migration, and everything to do with the country’s corrupt and dysfunctional policing services, unemployment and poverty.
South African politicians don’t let facts get in the way.
It’s easier to blame African immigrants rather than facing the anger of your own citizens and admitting that you’ve chosen to line your own pockets instead of doing your job. If you can get others to shoulder the blame for the hopeless situation that many South Africans find themselves in, then why not?
South Africans are rightfully angry at the high levels of unemployment, poverty, lack of services and opportunities. But rather than blame foreigners, we must redirect that anger and frustration at the source of the crisis.
It’s not foreigners that are stealing our jobs, it is a government that has largely failed to create them. It isn’t foreigners that contributed to a spiralling crime rate, it is a non-functioning policing service. If large numbers of foreigners are working illegally in the country, we must ask why no-one is arrested for taking jobs on a tourist visa? We rage against undocumented migrants but don’t ask which South African helped them enter the country.
On Thursday evening, Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation about the epidemic violence against women and foreigners. He drew attention to the criminal elements involved in looting foreign-owned businesses, thus avoiding the political leadership’s own role in fomenting the hatred.
A Zulu phrase that is commonly used in South Africa is “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, which roughly translates to "I am because we are.” A liberated South Africa is because Africa was. Now is the time for South Africa’s political leadership to display the concept of ubuntu. They need to show brave leadership and stop scapegoating African migrants. Failure to do so will only further isolate South Africa from the rest of the continent.
By Suraya Dadoo is a South African writer based in Johannesburg. Find her on Twitter: @Suraya_Dadoo