Xenophobia in South Africa, a case of misdirected anger

South Africans, mainly the poor and unemployed, have been at it again – attacking and killing other Africans living in South Africa, and looting and burning their property. These spells of murder, arson and other acts of violence against African migrants have become depressingly regular.

The usual excuse for the periodic bloodletting is that foreigners are stealing locals’ jobs. There is anger and frustration with their own situation which the relative success of the new comers highlights. This has turned into hatred for ordinary migrants also struggling to earn a living.

In a sense, therefore, it is the struggling people turning on others in the same boat. That, obviously, does not address their grievances. It is only a way of venting their anger and shows their impotence to do anything about their conditions.

In the past, there has been loud condemnation of such acts but little else. This time, however, the violence was bad enough to rouse the anger of other Africans whose compatriots were attacked in South Africa. They seemed to say: we have had enough, and retaliated by attacking South African businesses and diplomatic missions in their countries. That happened in Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo and other places.

In my view, anger in both instances is misdirected and so the action taken in either case is wrong. It should be directed at their respective governments.

In the case of South Africa, the poor and unemployed are not in that state because of foreigners from other African countries. Rather it is because the apartheid era structure of their economy and the political and social relations stemming from it have remained largely intact. The majority of black Africans have remained excluded from any meaningful participation in the economy.

There is a lot of unfinished liberation business as far as the economy is concerned. The government has to dismantle or at the very least reform the pre-liberation structure.

Nearly all the land is still in the hands of white farmers. Industry is white controlled. There are still issues in housing and education.

Corruption, too, has become entrenched, gaining firm hold during the presidency of Jacob Zuma.  State capture by the corrupt government and political elite, and unscrupulous business people has taken on the magnitude of evil as apartheid did.

For other Africans, the South African state has nothing to do with the violence against their own, at least not directly. There is no evidence yet that it orders or condones it. The only offence, perhaps, is that law enforcement agencies in South Africa seem to look the other way as the violence is unleashed on the equally struggling migrants.

The target of their anger also should be their own governments that have created conditions for large scale emigration, not foreign diplomatic missions or businesses.

Horrific as the violence has been, it may eventually bring some benefits, if perhaps unintended. It may force the government of South Africa to change its uncaring attitude and protect other Africans on its territory. It may also speed up or initiate policies to address the glaring inequality in the country. Other governments may also be urged to do more to protect their citizens abroad and improve conditions at home so that they do not have to leave in the first place.

This might sound overly optimistic, but it is possible.

Why do we continue to see these acts of violence against migrants? When economic and social conditions in a country are bleak, the tendency is to blame all this on foreigners. As they get worse, blame turns to hate and then violence.

However, this is not restricted to South Africa. Hatred of foreigners is more widespread on our continent than we care to admit.

Sometimes this hatred is fuelled by unpopular or shaky governments in order to divert people’s anger against them or to destabilise neighbours they don’t like.

Indeed, some of our countries, even those purporting to promote greater integration, have anti-immigrant regimes. They treat travellers with suspicion as if they were criminals. They have subjected long-term foreign African residents or even their own citizens to constant harassment, arrest and detention, and murder.

Migrants are usually convenient and soft targets for all national ills. As already noted, they are usually simple people trying to earn a living, and as such vulnerable. They do not have political cover of their countries such as big investors or business people would. Even diplomatic protection can be difficult where there are rogue governments.

They are people who left their countries in search of better opportunities. It takes courage to uproot oneself, and those who do that are often very determined and focussed people. They see opportunities that locals have either not seen or neglected and seize them. They have no family or friends or other form of social support. So they work hard because there is no alternative.. Failure can mean death.

How can this be to blame for the poverty of nationals?

Some locals, on the other hand, do not exert themselves as hard, either because of a sense of entitlement or lack the inclination to apply themselves to any task, or the system has turned them into perpetual victims.

And so, while the xenophobic attacks in South Africa against migrant Africans are a reflection of deep discontent and the result of economic and political structural problems, they are also essentially acts of violence of victims against other victims. They target the wrong people and should instead be directed at the government.

The views expressed in this  article are of the author.

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