South Africa and a peculiar problem
In Pretoria, a march organised by a group calling itself the Mamelodi Concerned Residents escalated into a tense confrontation between protesters and foreigners, some of whom carried rocks, sticks and machetes, which they said were to protect their property.
The police used tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators on both sides. Video footage from the protests showed angry South Africans chanting and calling for African immigrants to be sent home.
The protesters accused African immigrants, including Nigerians and Somalis, of being involved in crimes, such as drug and sex trades. The incidents have prompted an angry response in Nigeria, where protesters in Abuja marched to the offices of South African telecommunications firm MTN and cable service provider, DSTV.
Also, civil rights groups have threatened to embark on a series of coordinated actions that would send a strong message to South Africans to refrain from further xenophobic attacks on Nigerians.
It is, however, an irony that the Federal Government which had earlier asked the South African government to investigate and punish those involved in the killing and end extra-judicial killings, immigrants profiling and xenophobic attacks is facing opposition from angry legislators at home for what they called complacency in responding decisively to the latest attacks on Nigerians in South Africa.
Nigeria’s first response came after a citizen, Tochukwu Nnadi, was extra-judicially killed by South African police officers for allegedly dealing in hard drugs. According to reports, more than 116 Nigerians have been murdered within the last two years in inexplicable circumstances either by South African citizens or even officials of the state.
Certainly, governments of Nigeria and South Africa as well as others need to look beyond verbal darts and move from rhetoric to reality checks or actions that can defuse tension on all fronts.
Poverty and desperation, of course, are only a part of the cause of this gory xenophobic tale in South Africa.Extensive research by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) has shown that South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, are among the most xenophobic countries in the world and that South Africans hold by far the harshest anti-immigrant sentiments. Furthermore, these anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments cut across all major socio-economic and demographic categories: young and old, black and white, educated or not. They display an extraordinary consistency in their antagonism towards foreigners, particularly those from other countries in Africa and especially those deemed to be “illegal immigrants.” Even refugees are viewed negatively.
Suffice it to say that the goodwill once lavished on South Africa by people from across the globe is now being squandered. With those attacks on foreigners, South Africans are betraying the foundation laid over so many years by those who dreamt that their country would take its place as a leading moral force in the world.
Unemployment and economic distress may have been cited as part of the motivators but unnecessary envy also plays a part. Some South Africans are known to be outraged at the competition offered by foreigners and the spectacle of Africans who are more successful than they are. Perhaps because of South Africa’s culture of entitlement, the entrepreneurial spirit and hard work so evident in immigrant communities have become sources of resentment. This is so sad.
As part of cosmetic measures to address the fundamental causes of the ‘twisted nationalism’ the other day, the country’s Interior Minister, Malusi Gigaba, told South Africa’s Parliament that authorities would crack down on the employment of illegal migrants by local businesses. South Africa’s labour law requires 60 per cent of a company’s employees to be South African or permanent residents of the country. The country has experienced periodic outbreaks of xenophobic violence in the past. In 2015, at least five people were killed in attacks on African and international migrants in Pretoria and Johannesburg, while property and businesses owned by foreigners were looted or burnt.
The authorities and leaders within the African Union should realise that the barbaric violence on immigrants in South Africa is not just an issue of xenophobia. The problem is attributable to a crisis of governance and poor leadership.
It is obvious that government officials hardly see poor governance at the core of the current challenge. For instance, in Nigeria, does it worry the leaders that citizens of the “largest economy” in Africa are being forced to search for opportunities in South Africa, a country infamous for one of the highest rates of unemployment in the world? South Africa is incredibly one of the most unequal nations in the world. Is it not a worthy political project to debate the condition of Nigerians emigrating in desperate circumstances because they cannot find fulfillment at home? If Nigeria were properly governed, not many Nigerians would be searching for opportunities in the slums of South Africa. The failure of governance to create an inclusive economy in Nigeria should be blamed therefore for the fate of Nigerian economic migrants to South Africa, among other countries from where they are being daily deported.
It is the same story of poor governance in South Africa. Over a quarter of the South African population is unemployed and protesters have blamed foreigners for taking local jobs. The founder of a new anti-immigrant political party called South African First, Mario Khumalo, said recently that over 13 million foreign nationals were living in South Africa.
But South Africa’s last census in 2011 estimated that only 2.2 million people born outside the country were living there.The United Nations put the number of foreign migrants living in South Africa at 3.1 million in 2015.
And so the resurgence of xenophobia only provides an escapist route for those who mismanage the South African political economy. Social injustice, class-based inequities and the unresolved land question are still some of the issues plaguing the economy of the former apartheid enclave. Wealth is still concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority despite the emergence of a few black business leaders in South Africa. The xenophobes rampaging the streets should see themselves as victims of a poorly governed country and that the poor immigrants are not the enemies. It is therefore unconscionable that political leaders in South Africa have no answers in terms of economic management of the growing poverty. After apartheid, the power elite should have designed and implemented some social democratic policies just as Germany did after the ruins of World II where market forces operated with some social conscience.
This is not to condone lawlessness by any foreigner in a sovereign nation. Those found guilty of any offences or crimes should be punished according to the South Africa laws. But the laws of the jungle should not be used. When MTN violated regulatory rules here, the Nigerian response was not to burn down its office and kill its South African executives. The regulator imposed a fine.
The poor economic immigrants are not the problem of South Africa. President Jacob Zuma and the ANC should therefore take a serious look at a political system that has failed to meet the needs of the majority of the people. They should resolve the crisis of governance that has diminished the stature of that great country. The message to African leaders, including Nigeria’s, is that the material conditions that produce economic migration to South Africa and other places should be looked into and stemmed. After all, welfare and security of the citizens must be the primary purpose of government.