Conversations with myself: The inconvenient truth about xenophobia in South Africa.

Men from Jeppestown hostel make threatening gestures towards foreign-owned businesses in the area Ihsaan Haffejee Al Jazeera
Men from Jeppestown hostel make threatening gestures towards foreign-owned businesses in the area (Ihsaan Haffejee Al Jazeera)

By Moses Tofa

Since the 2008 xenophobic attacks, xenophobia has remained entrenched in South Africa. In March 2015, the Zulu King—Goodwill Zwelithini—made a speech at a moral regeneration rally in Pongola, Kwazulu Natal in which he stated that foreign nationals should pack their belongings and go back to their countries. He criticised them for negatively influencing local cultural foundations and taking income generating opportunities from local people. Edward Zuma, the son of President Jacob Zuma, expressed his support for Zwelithini’s remarks, stating that South Africa is “sitting on a ticking time bomb”. Following these remarks, the country witnessed the resurgence of xenophobic violence in Durban, in which at least seven people were killed while hundreds were not only displaced but were injured and they lost their livelihoods. Scores were repatriated to their countries, particularly Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi.

The government was, at first, slow to respond to the eruption of violence. When it finally responded, it adopted a multi-prong approach by establishing a Ministerial Task Team to quell the violence and restore peace. The government also appointed the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Migration and tasked it with the responsibility of ‘ensuring social cohesion between local and foreign nationals’. This was claimed to involve the implementation of laws that govern business licensing, border management, reviewing migration policies and interrogating how various sectors can work with government to promote orderly migration and social cohesion.

On 22 April 2015, government convened a meeting with stakeholders to discuss the country’s migration policies and how diverse stakeholders can collaborate with government to promote orderly migration and cordial relations between locals and foreign nationals. A Task Team was formed and tasked with the responsibility of collating stakeholder submissions and proposals to eliminate xenophobia.

Two days later, government met with leaders of organisations representing foreign nationals, particularly asylum seekers and refugees. The participants committed themselves to work with government to address xenophobia in their communities. The government also deployed the South African Defense Forces to support the South African Police Service (SAPS) in the prevention and suppression of xenophobic attacks. In addition to this, courts were set up by the Department of Justice and the National Prosecution Authority to ensure the speedy prosecution of perpetrators.

Whether the government responses are satisfactory or not is a matter of debate. However despite managing to supress the attacks, the government’s response may never be able to resolve the deep issues that underpin the violence. The dilemma is that these responses remain an ephemeral solution to a broader problem. Amilcar Cabral dictum, perhaps, helps us to contextualise xenophobic attacks in South Africa. Cabral enunciated that “always remember that people do not fight for things, for ideas that exist only in the heads of individuals. The people fight and accept sacrifices. But they do it in order to gain material advantages, to live in peace and improve their lives, to experience progress and to be able to guarantee a future for their children”.
Any analysis of xenophobic violence which does not look into the interface between imperialism and xenophobia is bound to be superficial, bogus, and gibberish. In the same manner, any intervention intended to address xenophobia that does not seek to reprobate and obliterate infamous inequalities in South Africa and turn the tide of imperialism in Africa in general, will be bound to remain a pyrrhic victory. There are two options in the fight against xenophobia. Maintaining the status quo and content with xenophobia forever or overthrow the last stronghold of imperialism and eliminate xenophobia. True writers of history will not skirt the patent but inconvenient truth that imperialist interests bear the responsibility for the xenophobic attacks. President Jacob Zuma queried why scores of African nationals are leaving their countries for South Africa.
While I do not exonerate bad governance by post-colonial incumbents, this is essentially a result of the twin evils, that is, the living vestiges of imperialism and the new scramble for Africa. What should be noted about xenophobia is that it is perpetrated by impoverished South African nationals against impoverished foreign nationals who are almost exclusively Africans. What is common between the perpetrators and the victims is that both are on the periphery of the South African economic dispensation where they are at best hewers of wood and drawers of water. It is highly disturbing that black South Africans have completely misdiagnosed the cause(s) of their abject economic conditions. A Somali national who migrated to South Africa and established a perpetually fledgling small business in a poor township is and will never be the reason why hundreds of thousands of black South Africans continue to live on the crumbs that fall from the imperialist table. South Africa is under the clutches of rampant ramparts of economic apartheid, which unless they are laid to rest, will remain the bedrock of xenophobia.

About the Author:
Moses Tofa is an alumnus of the ALC and Programme Officer-Open Society Foundation for South Africa Cape Town Area, South Africa

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