It started with a scary WhatsApp message. “Somalis are kidnapping children in schools,” the message said.
Worried parents rushed to schools to save their children from what was thought to be ongoing retaliatory attacks by foreigners, The Star, a South African newspaper, reported.
But this was not true. There were no retaliatory attacks and there were no Somalis kidnapping children.
At the end of it all, four students in a primary school in Thokoza, Ekurhuleni, in Gauteng, South Africa, were nursing injuries after a stampede at their school.
This was the most recent episode of anxiety and anti-foreigner sentiments in South Africa, in the same week that seven people were confirmed dead in xenophobic attacks that are now slowly mutating into wanton looting of shops, including a car dealership outlet owned by a Nigerian that was burnt with 50 cars inside, according to media reports.
More than 189 people have been arrested, after which most of Johannesburg remains calm.
However, shops in affected areas are still closed for fear of repeat attacks.
Between 1994 and 2018, there were 529 xenophobic attacks in South Africa, resulting in 309 deaths, according to Xenowatch, a xenophobia monitoring tool developed by the University of Witwatersrand.
“These recent attacks seem to be well-organised, and not sporadic. The ones we are facing now are different from the ones in the townships, which we could attribute to high crime and high unemployment rates.
"These ones are well-organised, moving in minibuses, saying they are following the calls of some leaders that we (foreigners) are not law-abiding citizens,” Amir Sheikh of the African Diaspora Forum told journalists at Jeppestown.
South African police minister Bheki Cele visited Jeppestown following the looting of foreign-owned shops and killing of five foreigners.
Speaking in isiZulu, the minister called for peace, promising another meeting with the locals today.
But for the angry Jeppestown residents, that promise just wasn’t good enough.
In fact, it fuelled even more violence just after the minister left, with media reports saying sporadic looting went on into the night.
The statement – about the lack of jobs and its connection to foreigners – has been the common thread in the latest attacks that also rocked Rosettenville, Germiston, Tembisa, Turffontein, Boksburg, Malvern, Marabastad and Alexandria in Johannesburg.
South Africa, the Rainbow nation that became a democracy in 1994 after the fall of an oppressive apartheid regime, is ranked as the most unequal nation on earth, according to data from the World Bank.
More than half or in absolute numbers, 30.3 million, people live in poverty, earning less than 992 Rands, or Sh6,950 in the current exchange rate, while a quarter of the population (13.8 million people) are experiencing food poverty.
In terms of races, the situation is even worse. While a white person in South Africa earns an average 12,214 Rands (Sh85,970) per month, a black person goes home with three times less, an average of 4,413 Rands (Sh31,061).
An Asian or Indian, according to the National Income Dynamics Study from 2008 to 2015, earns an average 11,900 Rands (Sh83,760) and 4,834 Rands (Sh34,025), respectively.
The richest 10 per cent of the South African population held around 71 per cent of net wealth in 2015, while the bottom 60 per cent held just seven per cent.
With a youth unemployment rate of 54.7 per cent, and a general unemployment rate of 27 per cent, analysts say the situation for the continent’s second biggest economy, now growing at just 0.8 per cent, can only get worse.
“Xenophobia is a manifestation of South Africa’s real and enduring problems: inequality, insecurity, and institutional incapacity. Perhaps more importantly, it reveals a political class willing to adopt or endorse the language of street-level gangsters.
"It shows that our two main parties, ANC and DA, are out of ideas and seeking to deflect blame rather than deliver,” Prof Loren Landau of the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand told the Daily Maverick.
The Africa National Congress (ANC) is the ruling party, led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, while the Democratic Alliance (DA) is the main opposition party, with 230 and 84 MPs, respectively.
Xenophobia in South Africa, since the first wave in 2008, has turned to be a layered, multifaceted phenomenon, with no clear trigger; but with politicians making increasingly nationalistic statements and the rising inequality coupled with the unemployment being said to be the biggest contributing factors.
The number of foreigners in South Africa has been on a steady increase from 958,188 in 1996, 1.03 million in 2001 to 2.2 million in 2011, according to the censuses taken during those periods.
According to the Stats SA, there are four million foreigners living in South Africa now.
Between 2011 and 2016, South Africa has deported 400,000 foreigners, with nationals from Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Lesotho making up 88 per cent of the deportations.
“With blood, we will defend our business. We will defend our property. We will defend our dignity and integrity. We are not here courtesy of South Africans. When South Africa needed assistance of Africa (during apartheid), they were all assisted,” Mr Sheikh, a Kenyan, told foreigners in Jeppestown after the attacks on Tuesday.
While not all foreigners are documented and hence not part of the statistics, politicians and public officials in South Africa have been accused of tinkering with this number for their selfish gains, making a bad situation even worse.
Last year, for example, national police commissioner Khehla Sitole said that there were 11 million immigrants in the country, a claim that was disputed heavily by fact-checkers and statisticians.
And it is not just the number of foreigners that has been the victim of exaggeration.
In 2017, in a clip that has resurfaced this week online, former police deputy minister Bongani Mkongi made the oft-quoted false statement that Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, had 80 per cent of its population as foreigners.
Even President Cyril Ramaphosa has also been accused of making nationalistic statements.
“Everybody just arrives in our townships and rural areas and sets up business without licences and permits. We are going to bring this to an end. And those who are operating illegally, wherever they come from, must now know,” President Ramaphosa said during the May 2019 election campaigns.
In the same campaigns, Democratic Alliance made immigration a main agenda, promising to “keep illegal immigrants out of the country”; including deploying the military to the borders.
“Governance in South Africa, particularly at the local and community level, facilitates the occurrence of xenophobic violence by providing instigators with an opportunity structure to act. This facilitation happens by direct involvement of local leaders, or by lowering the perpetrators’ costs for their violent actions,” Dr Jean Pierre Misago of the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand wrote in the Daily Maverick.
According to Prof Landau, while South Africa has a plan to address prejudices, including xenophobia, it does not get to the crux of the matter, including references to discrimination against foreigners in terms of access to education, housing and medical services.
“The action plan (against prejudices in South Africa) similarly 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,” Prof Landau said.
Mr Lang’at is a KAS Scholar at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; [email protected]