Xenophobia is back in South Africa, and the likely reasons why it festers

Sunday March 5 2017

Foreign nationals hold a placard during an anti-xenophobia march outside the City Hall of Durban on April 8, 2015. PHOTO | RAJESH JANTILAL | AFP

Foreign nationals hold a placard during an anti-xenophobia march outside the City Hall of Durban on April 8, 2015. PHOTO | RAJESH JANTILAL | AFP 

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I sympathise with South Africa when she has to host millions of immigrants who pretend to be asylum-seekers but are essentially economic refugees. I don’t agree with the notion that people have a right to swamp other countries using sham reasons just because they seek opportunities there.

It’s a mistake, however, for South African locals to lump all Nigerian, Zimbabwean and Mozambican immigrants as drug pushers, criminals and pimps. The renewed xenophobic violence against them must stand condemned. There are legal ways to get rid of the criminals.

It is a pity that xenophobia often targets the wrong and vulnerable people. Contrary to perceptions, many of the immigrants are small traders, shopkeepers and informal workers who don’t really eat into the formal labour force. They contribute in their own small way to the overall South African economy rather than suck the blood out of it. They are hardly stealing jobs.

Still, anti-immigrant sentiment the world over is never rational. A Polish plumber in London gets rightly exasperated when his presence is linked to Brexit. Donald Trump sees a Mexican construction worker, or a farmhand, and conflates it all with drug peddling. The farmhand could be in the US illegally, but he is doing a job Americans won’t want to do.


What Trump may not know is that many of the high-value jobs that matter in his country already are held by non-Americans.

Example: Nearly half of all software engineers in Silicon Valley are foreigners, many from India. Yet nobody talks about that. Satya Nadella, the boss of Microsoft (he emigrated from Hyderabad), bravely joined his high-tech industry colleagues in castigating Trump for his recent ban on Muslim immigrants.

It bears mentioning that the father of Silicon Valley’s most celebrated technology innovator, the late Steve Jobs, was a Syrian refugee. The company he co-founded – Apple, which makes iphones – is the most valuable American company by today’s market capitalisation.   

The problem with modern-day migration is that it has been muddled up between politics, altruism and opportunism. Trump’s mistake is that his indiscriminate actions will shut out genuine refugees fleeing war – those from Syria and Libya. These are people who need help, not lectures about terrorism.

On the other side of the coin, a hustler hailing from prosperous Lagos will have a lot of convincing to do to the average South African that he is fleeing political persecution.

For South Africans, the immigrant influx is akin to an unwanted busybody who insists s/he is your relative and wants to disrupt your life when you want nothing to do with that.


Forget that apartheid-era solidarity, we don’t owe you any debt, they say. The situation is not very dissimilar with what we see in other countries where immigration has become a vexed subject. Multinationals with branches in South Africa have employed plenty of non-indigenous African mid-level managers.

Yet the anti-immigrant demonstrators target only the lowly immigrant stall owner in Johannesburg who hawks cell phones and wristwatches.

It is accepted business logic that the right immigrant will bring fresh ideas, energy, originality and all that. What the policymakers have not gotten right is the politics.

I wouldn’t blame the ANC government for the anti-immigrant attacks. Give it to the Jacob Zuma generation: they have a proper pan-Africanist perspective bred when they were in exile. It is the unemployed young folks who matured after apartheid who see things in a warped way.


The last word on xenophobia should go to Trevor Noah, a mixed-race South African comedy star who plies his trade in America. This is what he wrote on his Facebook page last month: “There are about 2.3 million immigrants living in South Africa, comprising Africans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis ... (and others). Of this number, 1.6 million are Africans. The 1.6 million Africans mostly run small shops, vending, service industries etc.”

Here is the crux: “They (African immigrants) lay claim to less than 0.00001 per cent of the wealth in South Africa. Whites in South Africa make up 8.7 per cent of the population and control 85 per cent of the wealth. There are about 6,000 European families who own 85 per cent of agricultural land in South Africa.”

Who says Uncle Bob in Zimbabwe does not have a point? And who wonders why official South Africa is so scared of him out of their wits?