13 May, 2015

‘Xenophobia’ and Being a ‘Proud’ Citizen in Post-Apartheid South Africa

by Sayaka Kono

Again, massive ‘xenophobic’ attacks threatened foreign nationals in South Africa. The saddest thing is the fact that both the victims and the assailants are the ones who suffer from poverty. South Africa is economically highly developed compared to its neighbour countries. That is the very pull factor for the migrants, but at the same time, this development has become possible because of the economic oppression of the majority. At first, it was the oppression of the South Africans who were excluded from the South African state and the Africans in the neighbor countries. After 1994, however, the structure of the oppression was continued. The matter is not the colour anymore, but the oppressed are still oppressed except for a few.

I stayed in one of the poor areas in a township for oral history research. The area I normally stay is full of shacks and mud houses. Many of the residents are unemployed. HIV/AIDS affects a lot of households. I could see that people were not satisfied with the current government. Interestingly, however, I found that many people were so proud of talking about their own country, even though they felt they had not been treated properly by the ANC government. The common reason they mentioned is South Africa’s development. I heard many people showed a pity to the migrants from other African countries, saying that their countries are poor or ‘uncivilized’. That is why, they said, the migrants had to come to South Africa. The similar perceptions can often be seen not only among the poor South Africans but also among other stratus, even the emerging African middle class who gain benefit from the new government.

The aftermath of attacks in Botshabelo, 2012

Being proud of one’s own country is not a bad thing, but it can be a dangerous thing as well, since it might let people be blind to where they are in the world. And I believe that this is exactly what is happening to many of the people who have grown up in South Africa. During the apartheid era, people were isolated from information. Media was monitored by the government. Education was also controlled by the government. Thus people were forcefully kept ‘ignorant’ by the apartheid government. A similar situation continued in the poorer areas even after 1994. Education is corrupted, and the access to information is very limited there. The little change is that all the people know that ‘ANC ended the apartheid and we have freedom’. The structure of the oppression has not changed yet as I mentioned above. However, since they still live in a very narrow world which is arbitrary limited, many people easily believe that the migrants from the neighbor countries come to South Africa because South Africa is ‘nice and rich’, without seriously thinking about how these migrants perceive their life there.

Allow me to use the example of the Zimbabweans I met in South Africa. Some of them are educational elites at university. Others are street venders and factory workers. Very few among them told me that they were comfortable living in South Africa. Although many of them want to stay in South Africa for economic or political reasons, they miss their country. Mealie meal which is not GMO, kitchen gardens which you can hardly see in South Africa, daily conversation which is not always materialistic. They could list up so many things they miss in their country. From this list, I had the impression that the major difference they mentioned are caused by the neoliberal culture in the post-apartheid era. I became more confident with this impression of mine when I visited Harare. Most of the people with small informal business on the streets had experienced staying in South Africa, or have close relatives there. Although they admit political and economic hardship in Zimbabwe, they prefer to stay in their country at the time of my interviews, not only because of their family and friends but also the difference of the sense of value, life style and so on.

A kitchen garden in Harare

Here I am not saying which country is better, but pointing out that there are different values which many Zimbabweans cherish, and many South Africans do not know. Furthermore, these differences might be what South Africa has lost by their adoption of neoliberalism. This might be what the ‘proud’ South African poor do not understand. They would not understand what the migrants sacrifice to come to South Africa. They are left behind in the competition, but they are not even allowed to realize what they have lost.

My point is the feeling of despair which has been strengthened through their ‘ignorance’. They are suffering from poverty. But they know their country is developed and ‘rich’, and they are proud of it. They can even see their ex-fellow comrades owing huge houses and driving very expensive cars. The ANC says that this is a free country and that apartheid is over. Many migrants from ‘poor’ countries are working here and there. So they should also be able to get benefit from it. They should also be able to improve their lives, but the reality expressed by many is, “South Africa should be the best country, and I am a citizen of that best country. But why are we struggling to get a job?”

I would not apply this perception to all the South African people. Nonetheless, I cannot help but be left with the impression that many South Africans are locked up in a very small world bound hand and feet by the complex apartheid legacy. There are various grass-roots movements protesting the structure of the oppression. The South African government, however, does not have time to waste. Yes, it has been only twenty years since the abolishment of the apartheid laws. Yet, people’s dissatisfaction is growing faster than the country is changing. The explosion of the hopelessness and anger expressed through the attacks towards foreign nationals will not stop until the fundamental issues are seriously acknowledged and addressed.

08 May, 2015

Where From? Where To? Malawian Migrants in the Wake of the April 2015 Xenophobic Attacks

by Harvey C.C. Banda

Much has been written on the plight of immigrants from various African countries resident in South Africa following the eruption of xenophobic attacks in April 2015. These attacks started in Durban or Kwazulu-Natal area, especially following the so-called xenophobic sentiments expressed by King Goodwill Zwelithini. Barely a few days after such sentiments a horde of South Africans rushed out, attacking foreigners and looting their shops demanding that they “go back home”. This was sensationally described in the print media in South Africa as “looting for our king!”

In this article, firstly, I critique the response of both the host country, in this case, South Africa, and the sending country, that is, Malawi, following these attacks. I argue that the response by the South African government was rather slow, lukewarm and, above all, characterised by denialism about the existence of xenophobia. The same response was notable after the 2008 xenophobic attacks. On the part of the Malawi government, I am of the view that much as it came in promptly, it would have been much better to transform from reactive to proactive approaches in as far as the socio-economic plight of Malawians is concerned. The Malawi government sounded to be very caring in responding to the needs of Malawian migrants who fell victim to these attacks. But looking at the bigger picture, the question would be: Why not impart the promised skills to Malawians for use in their day to day lives in order to prevent the mass exodus of unskilled and semi-skilled Malawians in the first place?

Secondly, I examine the dilemma facing Malawian migrants displaced from South Africa by these attacks: should they go back to South Africa? If yes, such a move would be tantamount to risking their lives in case of fresh xenophobic waves. Or should they forget about South Africa and settle down in Malawi? But, practically, what will they be doing by way of earning a living? If it were that easy, would they have emigrated to the xenophobic, dangerous and, therefore, life-threatening South Africa in the first place?

Xenophobia has emerged as a deep-rooted social phenomenon in South Africa, especially after the collapse of Apartheid in 1994. Many South Africans seemed to have developed hatred against foreigners, blaming them for a host of ills in society: that they are bringers of diseases, especially HIV/AIDS; take way jobs and contribute to systemic low wages since they grab anything that comes their way; to such extreme claims that they snatch women from them. However, with time it has become apparent that this hatred carries a racial tag. These xenophobic attacks are particularly directed at foreigners of African origin, that is, fellow blacks from African countries. In addition, fellow South Africans from the north of the country, for example, the Shangaan and the Pedi, have also fell victim in the process simply because the Zulu largely rely on ‘street language tests’ and whoever fails to prove proficiency in isiZulu is deemed to be ‘a foreigner’.

Malawians returning from South Africa (18 April 2015)

Consequently, there is currently a hot debate among scholars and observers whether to characterise these attacks as xenophobia, afro-phobia or negro-phobia. According to Christina Steenkamp in a research paper titled Xenophobia in South Africa: What Does It Say About Trust? (2009), xenophobia refers to the irrational fear of the unknown or, specifically, as the fear or hatred of those with a different nationality. It relies heavily on the circulation of myths and stereotypes about foreigners. Hence the belief among South Africans that foreigners are a source of problems in their midst. Loren Landau in Exorcising the Demons Within: Xenophobia, Violence and Statecraft in Contemporary South Africa (2011) soberly notes that there is no single word referring to ‘foreigner’ in South Africa, rather a cross-section of such words as makwerekwere, magrigamba, amagoduka, amaVerkom, cockroach and mapoti.

In the wake of xenophobic attacks in April this year, the official South African government response was sluggish to say the least. It took long for the government to denounce the inhumane attacks on foreigners. The government was busy refuting that whatever was happening was xenophobia and that maintaining that South Africans are not xenophobic. How can you describe that as xenophobia? We have foreigners from around the globe; why are these attacks only directed at African nationals? These were some of the questions usually posed. In my view, whether this was xenophobia or afro-phobia is immaterial, what is crucial is prompt government response to save innocent lives and property. The government kept on assuring the public that the situation was under control and that there was no need, as yet, to involve the army. When the latter came in, unfortunately, thousands of foreigners had already been displaced from their homes.

It has been noted that the same was the response after the outbreak of violence in 2008. In fact, the official response was to deny that xenophobia was involved and, furthermore, that it existed at all! Thambo Mbeki is quoted as having argued that those who claimed that South Africans were xenophobic were themselves guilty of xenophobia. Clearly this is a classic element of denialism on the part of the government.

The Malawi government deserves appreciation for the way it assisted Malawian migrants stranded in South Africa as a result of the April xenophobic attacks. It hired buses which were at the disposal of all those who felt threatened and were willing to return home. In short, repatriation was at the discretion of those affected. In addition, the Malawi government promised to ensure that the repatriates settled down in Malawi and found something to do in order to earn a living. There were plans to introduce artisanal skills, for instance, tailoring and carpentry, for the direct benefit of these repatriates. This is a good and commendable initiative, indeed. However, if only this were to be the everyday approach of government in assisting the unskilled Malawians, we would not have been grappling with this problem of emigrants to South Africa!

The mixed reaction of Malawian migrants to the violent attacks in April shows clearly why labour migration from Malawi to neighbouring countries is a century-old phenomenon. Asked on the life after xenophobia in South Africa, migrants gave two contrasting responses. For some this was the end of the migration journey, arguing they were never going to come back to this ‘xenophobic country’. While for others, surprisingly, by going home they were simply taking a break and waiting for the violence to die down. “If I am to stay permanently at home, what will I be doing? There are no opportunities there”, some responded. In fact, it was reported that barely a few weeks after repatriation, a few Malawians were caught on a bus in Lilongwe amongst fresh emigrants, heading back to South Africa. This shows how deep-rooted the migration phenomenon is and the tough task that both the Malawi and South African governments have in permanently tackling this migration problem.

At this juncture, I am compelled to agree with the migration experts who are of the view that there is need for ‘migration governance’ in order to solve the migration challenges between sending and receiving countries, for example, in southern Africa. In this case, there is need for concerted efforts between the concerned governments regarding cooperation and coordination in migration issues. As for the Malawian migrants recently repatriated in the aftermath of the attacks in question, going by the sluggish and ambivalent response by the South African government, they are better off finding something to do back home: I am afraid to say the xenophobia monster had been bruised, but is not yet dead and buried. It is not good to take a risk in such a situation!

05 May, 2015

Xenophobia's Aftermath: South Africa and SADC

by Hussein Solomon

Once again, South Africa’s streets were the scene of the most horrific violence against foreign migrants – specifically those from the African continent. Blaming immigrants for everything from stealing jobs to “stealing our women” to bringing diseases into the country, South Africans went on the rampage against fellow African immigrants. Anti-immigrant sentiment was clearly fuelled by comments made by King Goodwill Zwelithini – king of 7 million Zulus - who called on foreign nationals to leave South Africa as well South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma’s son, Edward Zuma. Zuma Junior blamed much of the crime in the country on immigrants. In the ensuing violence immigrant-owned shops were looted and they themselves were beaten and stabbed on the streets of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

What is clear though, is that the recent xenophobic violence has a lot to do with the worsening local economic conditions. Unemployment is hovering at record levels – with youth unemployment estimated at 50 percent. Investment into the country, meanwhile, is rapidly declining given the inability of the state power utility – ESKOM – to keep the lights on as well as the strident labour unrest and endemic corruption. Economic growth, meanwhile, hovers at a lacklustre 1.4 percent. Given these desperate economic times, locals are seeking an easy scapegoat to blame for their economic woes. Foreign migrants perform this role of scapegoats – a useful diversion, incidentally, for a government which has failed to deliver economically to its citizens despite it being in power for 21 years. A similar dynamic is also being played out in Europe suffering biting austerity measures where immigrants are being blamed for the falling living standards of locals.

In the aftermath of the xenophobic attacks, it was clear that South Africa’s image on the African continent was severely tarnished. Nigeria, withdrew its High Commissioner from Pretoria displaying its diplomatic teeth publicly; whilst there were calls from others for trade sanctions against Pretoria. It was within the Southern African Development Community (SADC), however, where Pretoria came under its severest criticism. Malawi’s Minister of Information, Kondwani Nankhumwa stated, “Our message to the government of South Africa is clear: protect other nationals or expect trade repercussions, as we cannot continue discussions of regional trade integration with a country where our citizens and our trade partners are being attacked”.

SADC Headquarters

Not to be outdone, Zimbabwe’s Information Minister Jonathan Moyo stated on his twitter account: “Sad Zuma failed to condemn xenophobia outright. SADC cheap labour built SA economy and region bore brunt of apartheid”. Moyo’s political boss, President Robert Mugabe, who is also the Chairman of SADC led the charge against Zuma’s handling of the xenophobic violence at a SADC meeting in Harare. Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika meanwhile agitated for a SADC resolution critical of Pretoria.

This criticism has hardened attitudes within the Zuma administration – noting that the problem of migration begins with the sending countries where economic and political conditions are such that many flee southwards. What is clearly enraging the South Africans is that the country adopting the toughest stance against South Africa – Zimbabwe – is contributing the largest number of migrants to South Africa because of the economic meltdown and oppressive political conditions in the country. This hardening of attitudes in Pretoria on issues of migration is clearly seen in the increased searches and deportations of illegal immigrants, the deployment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to the country’s borders as well as discussions on the establishment of camps to confine refugees there.

All this bodes ill for the future of the SADC as a united body. Indeed, one of its first attempts at regional integration was to examine the establishment of a free movement protocol. There are voices of reason within SADC – such as that of Botswana’s president Ian Khama who stated, “…we cannot treat South Africa as an employment bureau for our citizens. We have a problem and one of the issues is development and integration of our economies, as well as industrialisation”. SADC should heed such sage advice from President Khama. The way to regional integration is not through further polarisation but further economic development for a prosperous region.