“Dear South Africa,” goes a deeply touching social media message. “Once we cried for the pain on you … but now we cry of pain you cause. Mama Africa.”
This was a commentary on a recent bout of xenophobic attacks on African immigrants where three died in Durban, South Africa, in March 2019.
The response across the continent to a repeat attack on shops owned by Africans, mainly Nigerians and Kenyans in Johannesburg, on September 1, has exposed the real threat that xenophobia poses to African unity.
In the 20th century, the fight against apartheid in South Africa unified Africa around the galvanising ideology of Pan-Africanism.
While Pan-Africanism defeated apartheid, it failed to address its worst legacy — black on black xenophobia.
In the 21st century, South Africa is a frightening paradox. Its post-apartheid leaders like Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki have helped unify the continent and establish the African security architecture to stabilising the continent as a prime destination for foreign direct investments. But xenophobia in South Africa threatens to tear Africa part.
Contrary to popular expectations, the xenophobic sentiment has significantly increased since the election of a black majority government in 1994.
Over the past two decades between 2000 and 2019, no less than 120 people, mainly African immigrants, have been killed, many injured, their homes and property destroyed or looted in orgies of xenophobic violence in different parts of South Africa.
The victims of Afrophobia in South Africa are a mixed bag of old and new influxes of refugees, economic migrants, expatriates, traders and investors.
Between 2010 and 2017, the immigrant community in South Africa was estimated at about four million people.
At the dawn of the new millennium, South Africa under Mandela and Mbeki was widely seen as the Mecca of new Pan-Africanism, attracting a large number of African intellectuals, professionals and expatriates.
But since the March 2008 xenophobic attacks, which left 62 people dead, many expatriates have left South Africa for other destinations.
South Africa’s xenophobia is new. Africa’s founding fathers warned against xenophobia.
In his book, Class Struggle in Africa (April, 1970:66), Kwame Nkrumah noted that workers “are blamed for the scarcity of jobs, the shortage of houses, rising prices and so on”, adding that as a result “the African immigrant worker is victimised both by the government and by his own fellow workers”.
Nkrumah saw African unity as the antidote for xenophobia. “In Africa,” he wrote, “there should be no African ‘alien’. All are Africans. The enemy-wall to be brought down and crushed is not the African ‘alien’ worker but balkanisation and the artificial territorial boundaries created by imperialism.”
Xenophobia is a stubborn legacy of apartheid in South African society.
According to a 2018 research, 62 per cent of South Africans viewed immigrants as a burden on society by taking jobs and social benefits while 61 per cent believed that immigrants were more responsible for crime than other groups.
According to one study in 2004, 21 per cent of South Africans favoured a complete ban on foreign entry while 64 per cent others were in favour of strict curbing on immigrants.
The perception that other Africans — pejoratively known to South Africans as Makwerekwere — are responsible for crime, unemployment and sexual attacks has inspired xenophobic blitzes such as the “Buyelekhaya” (go back home) campaign in 1995 and subsequent anti-African pogroms.
Xenophobic attacks have involved one of the most inhuman, barbaric and outrageous brutality.
In 1998, a Mozambican and two Senegalese citizens were thrown out of a speeding train.
On 30 May 2013, 25-year-old Abdi Nasir Mahmoud Good, a Somali, was stoned to death.
Alfabeto Nhamuave, a Mozambican national, smouldered to death from the notorious necklacing (or the practice of extrajudicial summary execution carried out by forcing a rubber tyre, filled with petrol, around a victim's chest and arms, and setting it on fire).
What has caused the current uproar is what many see as lack of interest by South African leadership to comprehensively deal with xenophobia.
South African Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu seemed undisturbed by xenophobia.
She said that foreign business owners cannot co-exist peacefully with local business owners unless they share their trade secrets.
"They cannot barricade themselves in and not share their practices with local business owners," she said.
Ironically, Minister Zulu’s comment draws from orientation in “scientific research” by South African think tanks that seem to exacerbate the Us-versus-Them divide in South African society, thus giving a moral ring to xenophobia.
A case in point is the study by the African Centre for Migration in Johannesburg provocatively titled: "Somalinomics: A Case Study on the Economics of Somali Informal Trade in the Western Cape" (October 2013), which, although seemingly innocuous, pits the locals against African traders and investors in South Africa.
Obviously, response to xenophobia is rolling back the gains made in African unity and economic integration.
On September 4, Nigeria pulled out of the World Economic Forum (WEF) gathering in Cape Town, protesting the recent deadly attacks, casting a dark cloud over an initiative to boost intra-African trade.
Air Tanzania has suspended flights to Johannesburg because of the violence.
Xenophobia is rolling back South Africa’s diplomatic influence in Africa. On September 5, Pretoria temporarily closed its diplomatic missions in Nigeria following reprisal attacks by Nigerians.
It is also undermining its business. Demonstrators have targeted South African-owned shopping malls, businesses and missions abroad.
As a result, South African telecoms giant MTN closed its shops as a precaution.
But the battle for South Africa has just begun. In the apt words of a Congolese protester: “We are tired of being beaten every day. We're all Africans. Why must we be afraid to go to South Africa?”
South Africa is not “a white tip on a black continent. It is part of Africa.”
Professor Peter Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser and currently Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute, Nairobi.