The wave of deadly xenophobic attacks against foreigners of African descent that has shamed South Africa, and the astonishingly tardy response by the government, has multiple causes. These simmer under the surface, and from time to time explode violently.
Not honestly acknowledging and facing up to underlying societal problems is a big contributing factor. As the xenophobic violence spreads like wild fire, instead of sending in the army to the affected communities, the government remained stuck in denial, leaders claimed it was not xenophobic and was made up of “isolated” incidents.
South Africa is a deeply violent society – and we must own up to that, in order to better deal with the reality. The culture of violence has its roots in the violence of colonialism and apartheid – and the oppressed peoples’ counterviolence in response.
As well as being one of the globe’s most diverse societies, South Africa is also one where different communities are often deeply intolerant of others. Apartheid has not only left a deep legacy of white-against-black racism. The apartheid system, by forcefully ghettoising ethnic groups, those with different shades of skin or languages, has left a legacy of not only interracial group and colour prejudice, but also prejudice against Africans from outside the country.
As a result, both black and white South Africans are deeply suspicious of Africans from north of the Limpopo. African immigrants are violently attacked because perpetrators believe the police will not prosecute them with the same zeal because the victims are foreign, not “like us”.
Xenophobic statements by national leaders have helped fuel the problem. King Goodwill Zwelithini, traditional leader of the Zulu ethnic group, said African migrants should “take their things and go”, as they supposedly take the jobs and public resources meant for locals.
President Jacob Zuma last year said that South African blacks should not behave as if they were “typical” blacks from “Africa”. The African National Congress general secretary, Gwede Mantashe, blamed “foreigners” for stoking unrest in South Africa’s platinum belt.
In January this year, the small business development minister, Lindiwe Zulu, said the businesses of foreign Africans based in townships could not expect to coexist peacefully with local business owners unless they shared their trade “secrets”.
The last wave of xenophobic attacks, in 2008, came at the height of the global financial crisis. Right now, the South African economy is again at a “crossroads”, as finance minister Nhlanhla Nene put it in his budget speech earlier this year.
As the economy gets worse, poor blacks and African immigrants compete for scarce resources at the township level. African immigrants are likely to be better educated and more resourceful than locals – and the local response has been to turn to violence to stamp out the competition.
South Africa is facing two crises simultaneously: the government is not delivering effective public services to the poor, while the economy is in a slump with job losses in the private sector and increasingly in the public sector.
But democratic institutions, such as parliament, are also perceived to be failing poor black South Africans. Because of this, people increasingly seek answers in populist, tribalist, ethnic and fundamentalist “solutions”. They look for scapegoats, whether “capitalists”, “settlers”, “foreigners”.
The country’s existing party political system, its parties and leaders are not responding to the needs of the majority of voters. Many disillusioned citizens therefore increasingly withdraw from politics or stay away from voting. The ANC, despite the fact that it received 62% of the vote in last year’s national elections, is losing its hold over black society. There is nothing to replace it yet.
President Zuma must go to the victims, and be seen embracing them, apologising as a president for the sickening violence meted out against them. Zulu King Zwelithini must also publicly apologise and be seen to go the affected African migrant communities.
The army must be deployed as a matter of urgency in the affected areas. The perpetrators of xenophobic violence must be prosecuted firmly, to show that government, democratic institutions and society are serious about crimes against foreign Africans.
The previous wave of xenophobic attacks and the government’s uninterested response was one of the factors that dislodged Thabo Mbeki. This current round of xenophobic violence, and likely negative effect on the fragile economy, our relations with other African countries, and the shame of our complicity, may be the harbinger of the beginning of the end of the Zuma presidency also.
*This article first appeared in the Guardian and can be read on their website here.