Is xenophobia in South Africa a moral or economic question?

Sunday September 8 2019

Looting. South African looters take items from

Looting. South African looters take items from foreign-owned shops during a riot in Johannesburg on Monday. AFP/ FILE PHOTOS  

By Ivan Okuda

The colours of the Rainbow Nation are tainted with blood, yet again, due to bouts of xenophobic attacks ravaging parts of South Africa’s Gauteng Province, particularly Johannesburg and Pretoria cities.
Substantial acreage of newspaper and social media space has been devoted by the low and mighty across Africa in condemnation of this deplorable, anti-Ubuntu action.
Is xenophobia a moral or economic question, or both? Do people hate because they simply hate or they hate because they have political opportunity to hate? Are some people born with DNA of hatred and fear of ‘the other’?
If so, how does one explain racism in the North Atlantic or Europe that Africans are subjected to, or tribalism which in our African nations sometimes explodes into ethnic violence as we saw in 1994 Rwanda or post-election Kenya in 2007. Or even the victimisation of Ugandan traders by South Sudanese in Juba?
If one extrapolated this discourse to Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler and eras in history and across geography before that, it becomes increasingly evident that the human race, at micro and macro levels, has had and will always have moments when violence against fellow humans just becomes incomprehensible so much so that reducing the discussion to say xenophobia, racism, tribalism, religious imperialism, however factual, tells only part of, not the entire story.
Did the Rwanda genocide, for instance, happen because the Tutsi and Hutu simply hated one another or did the post-election violence in Kenya break out simply because one tribe hated another? Were there underlying push and pull factors that triggered what William Golding in Lord of the flies calls, ‘the darkness of man’s heart’?
To condemn xenophobic violence is the moral thing to do, but to understand why it occurs repetitively since 1994 and focus the axe on the root of the issue is saner.
At the heart of this, as I shall demonstrate, is an economic question which if not addressed, means we can only keep running around in circles.
For historical context, African immigrants have been victims of discrimination since before 1994 when democracy was ushered into South Africa and the apartheid flag was lowered. That moment came with expectations of tolerance for fellow Africans whose countries had contributed to the anti-apartheid struggle.
The period 2000 to 2008 saw at least 67 foreign nationals die as a result of attacks while in May 2008 no less than 62 people died with 21 of them being South Africans. There have since been more attacks. We are dealing with a repetitive cycle that is not about to end.
In 2018, Pew Research polled South Africans and found that 62 per cent of them perceived immigrants as a problem, accusing them of taking jobs and social benefits as well as linking them to crime. These perceptions are certainly not backed by evidence or logic, but perceptions are sometimes more powerful than reality, especially when you have politicians openly scare mongering and saying some cities are 80 per cent populated by foreigners.
This is an absurd falsehood considering that studies show between 2010 and 2017 the immigrant community in South Africa increased from two million people to four million people. The country’s population is estimated at 55 million. But politicians generally have the poetic licence to sometimes trade fiction over facts.
To understand xenophobia, one has to look at the demographics and the social status of the most affected towns first. The victims (foreign nationals) and perpetrators are Blacks, of approximate age group 20 to 35 and many come from the less privileged ranks of society.
Unemployment and poverty levels among this population segment are high and are on the rise. To be honest the structural limitations and exclusions of the apartheid era continue to haunt South Africa and manifest in the despair among its youthful population with official figures indicating that 6.7 million are unemployed, which is 29 per cent of those who qualify to work.
University completion rates among Blacks are also low while access to well-paying jobs for those lucky enough gets harder as racism comes into the picture in an economy still largely dominated by White capital.
Whereas South Africa has one of the highest income inequalities in the world, the country’s situation is not radically different from the rest of the continent. Outgoing Oxfam executive director Winnie Byanyima wrote in the World Economic Forum this week that we have, “an Africa for the ultra-rich. Where three African billionaires – all men – now hold more wealth than the poorest half of Africa, or 650 million people on our continent.”
Attempts by the African National Congress to correct the economic injustice of apartheid are far from closing the inequality gap. The party introduced social grants under the Social Assistance Act of 2004 that includes child support, disability, older persons and social relief distress award.
This is available for residents, people with permanent residence permits, and refugees who pass a means test. For child support one gets (monthly) Rand 430 (Shs107,500) and if they are above 60 years Rand 1,780 (Shs445,000). For a country with a fairly high cost of living this is a drop in the ocean.
So, with this state of affairs, the government, itself battling an economy that is registering slower growth, the position of a Black South African remains far from the idealistic post 1994 dream. Tito Mboweni, South Africa’s finance minister, told the Financial Times recently that there is only so much the party can do in 25 years to reverse injustices of three centuries. Mboweni has a point, but that patience and logic does not entirely resonate with the ordinary Black South African who cannot find shelter, a meal or school fees.
Desperate situations like this then open room for desperate ideas, including politicians fuelling narratives that seek to explain away the failure of leadership to address challenges afflicting voters. Reason and facts don’t always count. Sentiment and populism become the currency of politics. It is the reason why immigration and the place of foreign nationals in the economy becomes a political issue.
Rebecca Davis, writing in the Daily Maverick in April noted, “Almost all the political parties registered to contest the 2019 national elections have made the presence of foreign nationals in South Africa a campaign issue to some degree. The newer the political party is, the more likely it seems to be to make overtly xenophobic promises to the electorate.”
Against the backdrop of economic hardships facing Blacks and a desperate search for life’s meaning and solutions, there arises what in political sociology is called the concept of political opportunity structure. This concept is to the effect that the factors that constrain or facilitate social movements are largely determined by political opportunities.

South African police rescue a man from angry
South African police rescue a man from angry taxi drivers during a riot in Pretoria this week.

This is where one would fault the South African state; the laxity to have a constraining impact or the facilitation of xenophobic violence by politicians and citizens which goes unpunished.
Jean Pierre Misago in, Linking Governance and Xenophobic Violence in Contemporary South Africa writes, “The absent or weak official local authority and community leadership provides a favourable opportunity for xenophobic violence in three related ways: (1) its absence means there are no effective conflict resolution mechanisms able to diffuse tensions before they escalate into violence; (2) its absence also means impunity and lack of accountability for the perpetrators and instigators of xenophobic violence, and (3) its absence leads to the emergence of informal leadership groups that use violence to further their economic and political interests.”
An ethnographic view of these trends may also help. Misago’s research argues that townships in South Africa have documented history of violence and makes a connection between this reality and why xenophobic sentiment easily mutates into violence.
In other words, Misago implies, this is not entirely surprising for a country ranked among the top 10 with the highest crime rates on earth and in which state estimates show at least 36 people are killed daily on average and in six months more than 1,875 people were stabbed, shot or violently killed in one region.
Rape and domestic violence against women are a scary reality. The country’s violence, as we saw in Cape Town this year, takes the tone of a war zone sometimes.
“South Africa feels like a crime scene, we just need to shut down this country,” a student of politics at the University of the Witwatersrand told me over a drink recently.
To curtail violence there must be social control, a concept devised by Albion Woodbury Small and George Edgar Vincent in 1894. In the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes argues that social control is about, ‘social order and how the state exerts this using civil and military power’ while Cesare Beccaria in the book On Crimes and Punishments contends that, “people will avoid criminal behaviour if their acts result in harsher punishment”.
To Èmile Durkheim in the book The Division of Labour in Society it is because of social control that human beings abide by or do not abide by laws.
Misago’s research on xenophobia in South Africa, documented history of attacks since 1994 and evidence of complicity of politicians, demonstrates that where social control is wanting, violence becomes a new normal.
In South Africa the competence and capacity of the police service after 1994 is being questioned and given the political opportunities for xenophobia in the country, one can safely admit that there is little capacity and political will to address the problem by the South African state. We seem to be hitting a dead end there.
Let us now shift this discussion to the source of the problem that is external. Unlike Uganda which is home to refugees; people fleeing political instability in South Sudan, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and living in designated camps with international and national bodies taking care of their needs, South Africa is the biggest destination for immigrants fleeing their countries in Africa for economic reasons.
When they get in, sometimes after beating the country’s border control and immigration system, they then integrate themselves into the society and start life anew, chasing an imaginary ‘South African’ dream. No other country in Africa deals with the unemployment burden of other African countries to the magnitude of South Africa.
When the Zimbabwean economy ran into trouble, South Africa became the destination for desperate Zimbabweans searching for opportunities.
“Zimbabwe’s problems became South Africa’s problems,” one member of the ANC remarked at a recent workshop on migration.
When Nigeria’s population explosion could not match opportunities in the economy, Nigerians saw light in South Africa and moved there. That is practically the story of several other nationals from Africa. It is the search for another chance driving this immigration surge. Remember that when these economic immigrants go to South Africa they automatically find their bearing in communities peopled by fellow Blacks.
Friction and tensions start to percolate as the continent’s young poor meet the young poor of South Africa and sentiments, as captured in the Pew Research, start to emerge, cross pollinated by politicians’ populist statements that seek to play to their constituencies’ fears and oiled by a weak or unwilling state apparatus incapable of ensuring social control.
Sadly though, this can only get worse. By 2030, it’s projected that young people entering the labour market in Africa will be 30 million per year. Currently whereas we need 18 million jobs in sub-Saharan Africa per year for those joining the labour force, only three million are created with a job growth rate of 1.8 per cent against a labour market growth rate of three per cent as the sub-Saharan Africa average.
Where do the remaining 15 million who cannot find a foot in the labour market go? For Uganda’s case, at least 140,000 are estimated to be in the Gulf States where they must deal with racism from the Arabs and some get killed or their organs are traded.
At the very least they are treated like slaves of old. Others try their luck in the South African dream, itself an illusion for there is no such dream for a Black man. Some Africans then try their luck in Europe, trekking thousands of miles from Niger to Libya to the Mediterranean Sea and if they don’t drown at the Italian island of Lampedusa, they find themselves in Europe where they could be deported or treated inhumanely.
No one wants Africa’s economic immigrants yet the continent cannot breathe. The European Union in 2018 advanced €1.6 billion to Niger, a chunk of it dedicated to supporting that country stop African immigrants making their way to Libya en route Lampedusa.
Therefore, the political economy of migration of young, unemployed Africans must be at the centre of this discourse. To reduce it to xenophobia, in my considered view, is to focus on the branch and forget the root. It is akin to reducing the Rwanda genocide to Tutsi-Hutu hatred for one another while neglecting the role of the Belgian colonial system in entrenching marginalisation of one community to the disadvantage of the other.
Does ethnic violence in that case become a consequence of the economics or a standalone factor? British author William Golding teaches us that human beings are inherently evil, what keeps evil at bay is social control. Political opportunities bring it out. So, it is healthy to moralise about xenophobia and condemn it but addressing the structural issues is where the answer lies and this is everyone’s business not only South Africa though it has the primary obligation as a matter of law and morality.
One should also look at the history of the anti-apartheid struggle and the roots of xenophobic sentiments. It is not surprising to find Ugandans, Nigerians or Ghanaians in their early 30s who have only known South Africa as home.
They speak Isizulu as fluently as any South African. Some of these are children of Africans the apartheid system co-opted to run the medical, education and civil service infrastructure in Bantustans during those difficult years.
Partly because the system had excluded Black South Africans from education, so these jobs were only available to educated foreign nationals, hence the influx of Ugandan doctors and teachers for instance, who worked in Bantustans.
From interactions with some of them and people who are in position to know, these were viewed by Black South Africans struggling against apartheid that they were collaborators of the racist system and they were accused of delaying their liberation.
They were faulted for aiding the apartheid regime construct a façade that Bantustans delivered and in exclusion of Black South Africans from the economy. Some of them didn’t wish apartheid to end since it meant end of opportunities for them but the all-embracing Mandela administration maintained these expatriates in the civil service.
As other Africans remind South Africans of their countries’ role in the anti-apartheid struggle as the Ghana president did this week, some elderly South Africans in the anti-apartheid resistance are also quick to remind them of this dark history pages.
The xenophobic sentiment, therefore, has its roots pre 1994 and when the tables turned in 1994 the latent tensions became apparent so much that not even Nelson Mandela’s charm and Rainbow Nation promise could stop it.
That continues today, exacerbated by other factors of course. Those factors, I submit, are more structural than reducible to xenophobia as if it were a standalone. It is only perhaps a catalyst, a matchstick awaiting to be lit.

The writer is a lawyer and journalist, currently a Konrad Adeneur Stiftung Media Africa Scholar at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.