Xenophobia: South Africa’s New and Silent Apartheid?


Recent Xenophobic attack in Durban: Image credit AFP

It is now seven years since much of South Africa was shocked by the xenophobic violence that began in Alexandra township, then spread to other areas in Gauteng and the Western Cape. After the first domestic military intervention since 1994, the violence subsided.

More than 60 people were killed, hundreds of thousands displaced and tens of thousands had to shelter in hastily erected camps through the winter. With this, you might think that a permanent solution to the xenophobic violence was negotiated but it is different.

Today in April 2005, the xenophobic attacks are sweeping through the slums of Soweto and mostly the third largest city in South Africa, Durban. Shops are being torched. Streets are being barricaded. Tyres are being set alight. Rocks have become weapons. People whether young or old are being hacked, stabbed, shot and burned to death. Jubilant mobs hound Somalis, Mozambicans, Zimbabweans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis from their homes and businesses.

In the wake of this, comes a directive by the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, who stoked the fires by calling for foreigners to pack their bags and leave saying they are the major cause of unemployment and insecurity. Meanwhile, the government is still wrestling with how to define the problem.

Why South Africa?

South Africa is to many Africans what America represents to many around the world: an escape, a fresh start, a land of opportunity. When gold was discovered in Johannesburg in 1886, it was soon being mined by men from a dozen African nations.

Today the country is a magnet for Congolese, Ethiopians, Malawians, Mozambicans, Nigerians, Somalis, Zimbabweans and others fleeing conflict or seeking to improve their lot. Estimates of immigrant numbers vary from 2 million to 5 million, out of a population of 51 million.

The nation, it is believed that it has about 2 million documented and undocumented immigrants, which is about 4% of the total population, according to a study by the University of the Witwatersrand.

Zimbabweans make up the largest group of immigrants.

But the recent wave of xenophobia has tarnished this image and fuelled resentment among those who accuse South Africa of an arrogant exceptionalism that looks down on the rest of the continent.


Internet photo

So where is all this coming from?

South Africa’s xenophobia reflects the country’s history of isolation. As a country at the southern most tip of Africa, South Africans are fond of referring to their continental counterparts as”Africans” or “people from Africa”. Many business ventures, news publications and events– aimed at local audiences– routinely speak about “going to Africa”.

This violence, is revealing two demons that still threaten South African society. The first is embodied in migrants themselves. Thanks to decades of negative discourse and practice, people out-of-place – migrants – remain an object of suspicion to South Africans. They often see them as threats: to safety, employment and progressive transformation. In the imagination of many, they loom as thieves and criminals set to rob the country and its citizens of their most valuable assets. At best, they are seen as victims of capitalist exploitation or hapless governments on the continent.

There are historical reasons for this demonization, but we need not search hard to locate a fundamental unease with human mobility – not just immigration but also domestic migration – in post-apartheid urban development plans, security programmes and, ironically, strategies for promoting social cohesion.

The second demon is a society, or parts of it, willing to turn violently on those living peacefully within it. The violence of May 2008 was hand to hand, neighbour against neighbour. Those killed were not killed at a distance but hacked with machetes, burned in their homes or bludgeoned with wooden giraffes and auto parts. This is more or less what is happening today.

Many people refer to the history of South Africa as the root of the problem apartheid was tough and many South Africans are still wary….but wait a minute…. Apartheid was not imposed by other Africans. It was imposed by the white man who thought he was superior to the black man and chose to enslave him in his own land. As far as I know, all the African countries rallied behind South Africa; Thabo Mbeki related, at a talk in Cape Town very fondly, his enjoyable stay in Nigeria during apartheid. I watched a documentary where many South African exiles related how they were hidden by other African countries, educated and taken care of, so dare I say, history has nothing to do with this xenophobic killings. It’s all about the mind of a black man.

But are the foreigners stealing the jobs?

For the record, foreigners don’t dominate the South African informal sector.

According to The Migrating for Work Research Consortium (MiWORC)’s research, international migrants are far more likely to run their own businesses. Eleven percent are “employers” and 21% are classed as “self-employed”. By comparison, only 5% of non-migrants and domestic migrants were employers and only 9% of non-migrants and 7% of domestic migrants were self-employed.

Late last year, the Gauteng City-Region Observatory – a collaborative project between Wits University, the University of Johannesburg and the provincial government – conducted a limited survey of the informal sector in Johannesburg. Dr Sally Peberdy, a senior researcher at the Observatory – says that the belief that international migrants dominate the informal sector is false. According to the report, it was found that less than two out of 10 people who owned a business in the informal sector [in Johannesburg] were cross-border migrants.

Peberdy argues that international migrants do play a positive role in South Africa. “The evidence shows that they contribute to South Africa and South Africans by providing jobs, paying rent, paying VAT and providing affordable and convenient goods.


Why this is all wrong.

South Africans are clearly attacking the wrong enemy.

It is indeed a very sad part of black people’s history that poor South Africans have decided to turn their pangas and machetes against their also poor fellow Africans. What is happening in South Africa does not reflect a rainbow nation, but a country in denial that they are not yet independent in the strictest sense of the word ‘independence’. Here’s what South African people ought to understand: Many foreign students in South Africa pay a lot more than their South African counterparts in Universities.

An international students fee is a compulsory ‘tax’, and in some universities, foreign students pay double the fees. It is safe to assume these extra tens of thousands of rands are put in bursary funds to pay for South African students. Foreign students are hardly eligible for these bursaries until they reach postgraduate level, which by the way is not an assurance. Becoming a permanent resident might be the only way to obtain a bursary, and with all the conditions attached to that, obtaining it is not as easy as it sounds.

It doesn’t end there…. South Africa’s immigration laws state that you must have a work permit to take up employment after studying, so one would assume this work permit is given freely right? Wrong! You cannot apply for a work permit if you don’t have a job, and you cannot get a job offer unless you have a work permit. Interesting paradox i think but that is how it works here. and even if a company was to employ you so as to aid you in obtaining your work permit, they must write a letter to the home affairs department stating clearly that no South African qualifies for the job.


Photo credit: AFP

How then are foreigners stealing opportunities when they have to fight through a web of rules to get to those opportunities? South Africa has a lot of opportunities but its black citizens are too reliant on the government for everything. In spite of abundant bursaries strictly reserved for South African students, many of them are not willing to take the opportunities.

Foreign students do, and suddenly, there’s a hate march against them for seizing opportunities South Africans did not want. Some of you may ask me…”what about the people who sell drugs and those who use fake papers?” I’ll answer with my own questions: who are the people buying the drugs? Who are the people helping them obtain these fake papers? South Africans do not hate foreigners…else they would be chasing the Australians. Americans, Britons, and many other foreign nationals that have made the nation their home. Instead, they are chasing black people- a form of self-hate and jealousy that cannot be explained by history.

They hate the fact that these other Africans are taking the initiative to seize opportunities they couldn’t care less about, and are succeeding at it, they detest other black people because they have the typical black nature- that we should either all wallow beneath the white man or all be successful (which of course is an idealistic thought considering the fact that many of us are more than eager to outshine our colleagues and have them look up to us constantly).

South Africans do not understand that many Africans here, and other foreign nationals alike do not get any handouts from the government… not by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, foreigners and their investments contribute a considerable amount to the South African economy- their skills, experience and knowledge are part of what keeps South Africa afloat.

The interesting part is that these same South Africans fantasize about living in other countries. I wonder if they imagine what it would feel like to be met by the same fate that they have so eagerly meted out to the Africans who shielded them from the oppression in their own land. What would happen if Uganda kicked MTN out, or if Ugandans had beaten up DSTV officials for not letting a Ugandan competitor Star Times TV shine in its own country?

I am not saying South African borders should be left wide open for people to take advantage of the country. By all means, good measure should be taken to keep the bad eggs out. However, the hate for our own skin colour must stop! We must understand that being African should be a thing of honour! we live on the continent that has the world’s best resources, but we are too busy hating on each other, our resources are being peddled away overseas. Our greed, our jealousy and our hate for each other is the reason we are treated in a lowly manner and disrespected by other races. The day we understand the need for our solidarity is the day we will rise as a continent.

I sincerely sympathize with those who have been affected by these hate killings. May their souls rest in peace.



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