Over the past one month, foreigners in South Africa have been targeted in resurgent violence reminiscent of the April 2015 and 2008 attacks. The orgy of violence started in Johannesburg and has spread to Pretoria. With a number of pro- and anti-immigrant activities lined up, discussions around xenophobia are unlikely to fizzle out any time soon.
The extensive media coverage of this new round of attacks is bad news for South Africa’s image, soft power and reputational capital. South Africa is the continent’s undisputed leader. For instance, it is home to Africa’s largest multinationals and top universities. But developments such as the current xenophobic attacks paint it as intolerant and, therefore, unattractive.
To a great extent, the core of the anti-immigrant sentiment is fuelled by rising nationalism by a section of South Africans against fellow Africans – the “Afrophobia” dimension of xenophobia. Readers can think of this along the lines of the ethnic violence that erupts periodically in Kenya, and extrapolate this to African immigrant in South Africa. Parallels can be drawn with the rising nationalism in places such as the US and Europe. From a historical viewpoint, the narrative is that the isolation of South Africa from the rest of the continent ingrained the feeling of supremacy South African. The mind-set is that the huge influx of immigrants portends economic disaster. The hot-button issue is South Africans are being marginalised as employers prefer hiring foreigners, who also dominate the small-scale business sector. Accordingly, the most vulnerable category of Kenyans who could find themselves in the crosshairs of “Afrophobia” is the informal traders who sell merchandise such as curios, textiles and shoes.
Some viewpoints suggest some South African organisations exploit foreign workers who are cheaper to hire and able to work in strenuous working conditions. It has indeed been suggested rather than target immigrant labour, employers illegally hiring foreigners should be the target. But beyond naked xenophobia, there is a subtle dimension in which Kenyans hoping to work for South African multinationals and universities will find it increasingly difficult.
The upshot is that formal and informal redress mechanisms have emerged. On the formal end, the South African ministry of Home Affairs has tightened laws to slam the breaks on economic migrants seen as inimical the well-being of its citizens. Statistics conflict but the immigrant population in South Africa ranges from 1.6 million to 3 million, considered too high for a struggling economy.
During the recent visit by President Jacob Zuma to Kenya, the issue of easier visa application processes was broached but left pending due to the jitters that many Kenyan economic migrants would inundate South Africa. Ditto other African countries. This has, however, not deterred the influx of undocumented African immigrants who have devised ways of eluding the system. Kenya does not feature high up in countries facing the wrath of vigilante groups. Nationals from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo appear to be on the receiving end. However, it is safe to conclude that Kenyan business, leisure and research travellers are as equally vulnerable to the explicit and discreet manifestations of the South African “Afro-pessimism”.
The rising number of immigrants has spurred the emergence of informal, vigilante groups taking the law into their own hands. Reportedly, a political party known as South Africa First has been registered in attempts to formalise anti-immigrant sentiments. The core message of the “informal brigade” is that the administration of President Jacob Zuma is not doing enough to keep unwanted immigrants at bay. Beyond the immediate triggers of violence – namely, drugs and prostitution – the popular view, real or perceived, is that foreigners are snatching jobs from South Africans. This is a particularly potent argument because of the employment rate currently about 27 per cent. In an intensely political environment, South African policymakers and politicians are wont to demonstrate that locals are prioritised over foreigners.
To be fair, “Afrophobia” is not uniform across South Africa and generalisations may end up missing out on nuance. There is a pro-immigrant narrative whose core message is to maintain solidarity with African immigrants. Africa’s support for South Africa’s liberation has been invoked. “Afrophobia” has been critiqued for imperilling South Africa’s continental superpower status and its Afrocentric foreign policy. African governments have often pointed out the material and moral support that they gave to South Africa as being trampled on. The counter argument is that South Africa should not be perpetually beholden to other African nations for historical debts. Others contend that South Africa should play a bigger role in stabilising other African nations if it is to effectively address the immigration issue.
A key point of departure for the pro-immigrant sentiment is that far from being economic saboteurs, foreigners in fact contribute to the economy. The view is that xenophobic sentiments are based on ignorance. The worry is that anti-immigrant sentiments pose a threat to the country’s attraction of skilled labour, knowledge and connections that have given the “Rainbow Nation” an edge on economic and international relations fronts.
Unlike the 2015 attacks when President Zuma faltered and demurred before condemning the violence, he has this time round issued statements in support of foreigners. Similarly, the leading opposition political parties – the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters – have condemned the violence while laying the blame for the unemployment that triggers on the African National Congress government. Indeed, protest marches in support of immigrants have been organised to counter the anti-immigrant brigade. Mainstream pro-immigrant viewpoints, however, belie negative subterranean sentiments that are hard to nail.
Besides the split between anti- and pro-immigrant proponents are the nuanced, rationalised perspectives. A number of commentators see “Afrophobia” as a complex challenge and apportion blame on both foreigners and South Africans. Indeed, in some instances there is an attempt to frame the attacks as not xenophobic-“Afrophobic” but simply criminality – a rule of law question rather than one of national identity. A key point is that the attacks are a case of “poor against the poor”. The foreigners flee their countries to eke out a living in South Africa but find equally desperate South Africans.