The sparks of SA’s xenophobia
Causes are varied, ranging from anger towards government to seething resentment at micro enterprise competition, write and ANC cannot offer utopia for South Africans Townships lost their business to foreigners
In a utopian world there are no national borders. Nor is there famine, genocide or conflict. Hence, there is no urgent reason to migrate. In this world, though, human migration is as old as humanity itself. Prehistoric food gatherers and hunters migrated in search of new regions that contained richer edible plants and animal life more suitable for their survival. In 2008, I participated in a research project conducted by National Geographic and IBM, known as the Genographic Project. It required my submitting samples of my DNA to researchers, to enable them to map my ancestral journey by analysing my Y-chromosomes. The results of this project identified me as a member of Haplogroup B, a genetic marker that located the origin of my ancestral roots in northeastern Africa.
What all this simply confirms is that I most likely owe my being and current location to economic migration by my forebears.
The last century saw activists in South Africa’s various liberation movements settle in countries around the world as political exiles. Zambia and Tanzania arguably hosted the greatest numbers of political exiles from South Africa.
Their unwavering hospitality notwithstanding, it was inconceivable that any of these host nations would countenance lawlessness by their guests, whether justifiable or not.
That said, there is general consensus by pundits that South Africa faces an acute economic migration crisis. This has provided ample reason for certain sections of the poor and downtrodden to vent their overall displeasure with the ANC government.
Let me nail my colours to the mast: xenophobia is an evil human scourge. The 2008 image of a Mozambican migrant being necklaced remains etched in my psyche.
Government officials have correctly castigated xenophobic acts, as did former president Thabo Mbeki this week.
However, the commendable alacrity with which government denounces xenophobic attacks must also be matched by its understanding of the underlying causes and effective action to ameliorate the situation.
The reasons for this conflict are based on various factors, including the lack of clear South African foreign policy guidelines on the matter; lack of proper border management and control; weak police presence and law enforcement; lack of sustainable economic growth; and the scarcity of job opportunities.
Government has failed to moderate, never mind mitigate, unreasonable expectations of it by its citizens and fellow Africans post 1994. While it remains indebted to those countries which hosted its political exiles, the governing party must not allow itself to be held to ransom by those who seek to undermine the country’s sovereignty and laws.
It is interesting that Zambians and Tanzanians, who hosted most of our political exiles, are not leading the pack of people trying to pass themselves off as economic migrants without regarding international norms and South Africa’s laws.
But the ANC government itself does not have a good track record of upholding international deals, never mind upholding and defending the Constitution.
That even Nigeria had the audacity to threaten this country with a complaint to the UN for crimes against humanity, after reports abounded of attacks against its citizens, is indicative of how low South Africa has stooped in terms of its status.
In just over 20 years, the country’s once-admired foreign and human rights policies have been erased. The hope and admiration that characterised former president Nelson Mandela’s leadership have been replaced by a sense of despair, especially when we bear witness to President Jacob Zuma’s dalliances with Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir – letting him slip out of South Africa in 2015, despite a court order preventing him from leaving.
Further, it is clear that successive ANC administrations have failed to anticipate that the dawn of a democratic order and South Africa’s position as a regional economic powerhouse, coupled with globalisation, would serve as a lightning rod to those seeking better economic opportunities. Had they done so, they could have put measures in place.
The new democratic government faced an insurmountable service delivery backlog as a result of apartheid. Successive ANC administrations failed to adequately respond to legimate socioeconomic expectations by the black majority. Add to this the demands posed by economic migration – particularly by those seeking to benefit from free public health, housing, education and extensive social security programmes – the current situation was a crisis waiting to happen.
The Stats SA 2016 Community Survey shows there were 1.6 million migrants. Reports have indicated that this number could rise to as many as 6 million when including those who have no documents. This places enormous strain on our emerging economy.
Over the past decade, the country’s security cluster has been beset with corruption within its ranks. And it has become too consumed with fighting the ANC’s internal political contestations to be cognisant of the ever-present threat that migration, unemployment and demand for limited public resources pose to South Africa’s national security.
Faced with a stagnant economy and its concomitant failure to rapidly industrialise, a bloated public wage bill, profligate spending by government, corruption and conspicuous consumption by politicians, attacks on vulnerable migrants are symptomatic of growing impatience by the poor, who are venting their frustrations with the government with shocking xenophobic action.
Government must recognise that unfettered migration affects its ability to cater for the basic needs of its citizens. The ANC’s failure to deliver on its electoral promise of “a better life for all” – read “utopia for all” – and to adequately respond to rising social unrest, presented through xenophobic attacks, may ultimately be its Achilles heel.
Utopia is nonexistent. Perhaps the closest to utopia the ANC can take its supporters is to concede that it has failed its people and stop burying its head in the sand.
The unfortunate cycle of wanton violence that has been meted out against migrants in Tshwane and other parts of Gauteng over the past two weeks – harking back to the attacks in 2015 and 2008 – is scary and dangerous. It is our responsibility to arrest the cyclical nature of this conflict and rededicate our efforts to honestly confront the underlying causes so we can resolve the situation once and for all. Anecdotal evidence points to massive levels of frustration that have built up exponentially over a long time. These have reached a tipping point within black township communities. Sustainable solutions will only be possible if we are honest and dogged in our efforts to comprehend the context that has generated this conflict.
Black townships were conceived by apartheid’s architects as sources of cheap labour, located far enough not to dilute the white social milieu and close enough to serve the purpose for which they were created.
Life in these communities was heavily regulated, including where one was permitted to trade and what kind of trade one could engage in. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that entrepreneurship could not flourish. Those who succeeded in establishing businesses are heroes.
Communities in townships may be diverse in terms of the cultures practised and languages spoken, but in almost all of them living in harmony is the norm. Communal institutions such as schools, churches and political associations have also played a crucial role in maintaining the sense of a common destiny and social stability.
The level of poverty in black communities is harrowing. Poverty and unemployment have given rise to feelings of hopelessness and anger in these communities. This anger is most visible among the youth, who constitute the majority of the unemployed. If there was inclusive economic growth, I believe the scenario would be different. Now, add to this the foreign traders who dominate the micro retail sector –rather than the productive sector, where they should be – in those communities, and you have the ingredients for a flare-up at any moment. All it needs is a spark.
There are currently 278 municipalities in the country, and almost all the black townships in these municipalities have a business run by a foreign trader. The traders’ unspoken set-up strategy was to establish at least two businesses close to the existing business of a local entrepreneur, choke it out of existence and then dominate the area.
This strategy has been replicated in all black communities. Assuming the average size of a township community has a minimum of 15 foreign traders, the numbers and implications are frightening. Most of these businesses are owned by migrants who come mainly from Somalia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Ethiopia. They have been very successful. It is alleged that a large number of them are undocumented and trading illegally. Such an efficient scale of invasion and domination of indigenous trading spaces is unprecedented globally. Entrepreneurial opportunities for the locals, at a basic level, have thus been frustrated.
Black South Africans lived with the legacy of exclusion from the apartheid era. Confronted with another wave of domination and exclusion in this, the new democratic dispensation, a toxic situation resulted. So, an uprising was predictable.
As stated above, there appears to be very little cultural compatibility with the communities in which the migrants trade, but until recently, this did not appear to be problematic.
However, as I understand it from the social anthropologists, this cultural incompatibility is the first fault line in social harmony and stability.
The migrants’ dominant presence in townships has resulted in a form of cultural disruption. Naturally, they will be viewed with suspicion as unwelcome “strangers”. This is what xenophobia is all about.
It is instructive to visit any black township and observe groups of adolescent men hanging out at street corners with forlorn faces and nothing to do, while people unknown to them are engaged in successful trade in their communities.
Even more perilous is the constant blame these communities place on illegal immigrants for the growing problem of drug dealing and substance abuse. Community members in the downtrodden central business districts in particular claim to know the drug dealers. They know their names. They know that they are illegal migrants and they know where they live. Clearly, the police have failed to protect their communities and enforce law and order. As we have seen in Rosettenville, the next step was inevitable.
A more critical factor that helps us understand the growing level of frustration in communities is how external forces have played a role in shaping the current conflict. They have added urgency to the situation, turning it into a perfect storm. South Africa is trapped in a slow growth scenario for the next five years, with the formal sector shedding jobs on a continuous basis. We are currently experiencing the highest levels of unemployment and inequality in the world.
Our dysfunctional education system is not producing the intended outcomes to aid and abet a growth trajectory that requires higher skill levels and technology-driven production. Few among the working population are employed or enjoy gainful activity. Levels of entrepreneurship are low compared to our competitor countries.
At the centre of this is our failed immigration control system. The home affairs department has no clue how many illegal migrants reside in the country. Targeting employers to identify undocumented employees cannot be reassuring.
The biggest problem is this colonisation that has been allowed to expand unabated in black townships over the past two decades. This begs the question of whether migrants should be permitted to compete at the micro enterprise level.
Motsohi is an organisational strategist at Lenomo Strategic Advisory Services
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GETAWAY In this 2015 photo, looters escape with goods during xenophobic attacks, which resurfaced after the infamous 2008 violence. The 2015 conflict was prompted by the death of a teenager, who was allegedly shot while looting a foreign-owned shop in Soweto