South Africa has developed a history of xenophobic attacks. As a South African it pains me to say this but there can be no denying what has played out over the years and, more recently, a few weeks ago. Despite the recent occurrence of xenophobic violence, incidences of xenophobia can be traced back to as early as 1994 – the year the “Rainbow Nation” was born – when gangs in Alexandra Township destroyed the homes and property of undocumented migrants and demanded they be forcibly removed. Seven more incidents were reported in 2000 and included cases of kidnapping, hijacking, and shootings. Since then a wave of attacks has occurred nationwide, often in urban areas, with 2008, 2015, and now 2017 being particularly troubling years.
Xenophobia has also been referred to as “Afrophobia” on the basis of discrimination and blatant lashing out against other Africans that are not South African or of dominant cultural groupings within South Africa. Define it as you may, what we continue to witness is a treatment of non-South African nationals as the “other,” as the enemy, as the alien. Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Somalis, Ethiopians, Nigerians, Malawians, Burundians, Congolese. Shops have been looted, houses have been burned, and people have been murdered. In many cases no one has been held accountable or brought to justice.
What has been most disturbing for me is the extreme violent nature of these attacks. Foreigners have not merely been attacked verbally, they have physically been assaulted. When Noel Beya Dinshistia from the Congo was brutally set alight in 2015 this was not the first time such an incident had been reported. In 2000 two Angolan brothers’ house was set alight and burnt to the ground with them trapped inside. South Africa does have a violent history and violence is somewhat interwoven in our society. When people are discontent they often resort to protesting which is notoriously known to turn violent. It is one thing when this violence is projected onto buildings and objects but an entire different thing when it’s projected onto people.
To make matters worse, South African authorities have done little to nothing to stop the spread of violence. King Goodwill Zwelithini, traditional Zulu leader in KwaZulu Natal, was largely blamed for the outburst of xenophobic attacks in 2015 when his comments that foreigners should go back to their own countries because they are changing South African society sparked the series of attacks on foreign nationals. African countries have implored South African authorities to do more and to be proactive in protecting their nationals. African nations have gone so far as to call on the United Nations and African Union to intervene in what can be described as a humanitarian crisis.
Different reasons have been cited for xenophobic attacks across the country. Some include service delivery (an issue I feel is much better directed towards the current government), allegations that foreigners are to blame for an increase in prostitution and the selling of illicit drugs (often broadly stereotypical), the influencing of politics, specifically in townships, and, very importantly, economic reasons have been at the forefront of reasons behind the attacks. With an unemployment rate of 26.5% (as at the end of 2016), South Africa is facing one of its highest unemployment figures yet. Foreigners are being blamed for stealing jobs from locals, accepting lower wages, and not partaking in the struggle for better wages and working conditions. South Africans, particularly the youth, have reached a point of exasperation and desperation. Poverty, unemployment, and the ever-present third instigator, inequality, have been plaguing the country for too many years.
Having said that, while I do agree that socio-economic issues lie at the heart of the matter, I think it’s all too easy to attribute xenophobia in South Africa to this alone; this is a social matter as well. When I asked a Nigerian friend about the recent attacks and about his feeling as a foreigner in South Africa as a whole, his response was simple: “they hate us.” HATE. That is how he chose to describe his experience as a Nigerian in South Africa. Other African nationals living in South Africa have confirmed similar sentiments. A Congolese man, married to a South African woman, spoke to me about the treatment he experiences in South Africa: the sense of always being made to feel different, like you’re an outsider, disliked and unwelcome. If you don’t speak the language and blend in, a Zimbabwean colleague admitted, this is the kind of treatment you experience.
Furthermore, there is an ever-present issue of civil servants making profits for personal gain at the expense of foreigners. Another acquaintance – Nigerian-born and South African-raised – has spoken about the impossibility of getting any kind of paperwork processed. No matter how badly you want to keep things above board, you are forced to pay a bribe. The issue of not knowing your rights is also a troubling one. Border controls are notorious for lying about the amount of days you have available in South Africa upon entry and often seek a bribe to afford you the legal amount of days that you may be entitled to. If you refuse to pay or are not in a position to afford the extra R300, the time allocated to you may be cut from thirty days to as little as seven days.
The impact xenophobia has had on South Africa’s image is clear. It has embarrassed the country and placed it in an extremely bad light. The economic effects are bound to be just as disastrous, particularly at a time when South Africa’s economy is stalling and growth prospects look dismal, all the while attempting to appease investor confidence and international ratings agencies. Matters of economy aside, the question so many people are left asking at the end of the day is this: what has happened to South Africa’s humanity? Do South Africans have no sense of Ubuntu anymore? Have the people forgotten the kindness shown to them during the years of struggle during apartheid? This is by no means a way to repay your fellow Africans’ goodness and it certainly is not promoting a sense of unity on the African continent.
When the xenophobic violence of 2015 broke out I felt just as sad, just as ashamed. Back then I wrote these words and I stand by them to today: I know a man, one of many. He’s working in security. He’s big and strong – I think it’s his body trying to accommodate that big heart of his. He liked the way I dressed one day and calls me Mariah Carey ever since. It never fails to make me laugh. He’s always friendly, always makes sure I’m OK. He may have his problems but a smile is never too much for him. He says he goes to three places only: work, church, and home. He’s disgruntled from insecurity, from frustration. I feel there must be more to life than that because it feels to me like existing, not living. First and foremost he’s my friend. After that, he’s a fellow African. We were both born on this continent; we both grew from here.