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  • Xenophobia threatens Mandela's vision for a diverse South Africa

Xenophobia threatens Mandela's vision for a diverse South Africa


Xenophobia headline

It is said that the migrant holds a mirror up to her host society. South Africa has again experienced the ravages of xenophobic violence in two of its major cities. Both the response by government as well as the incidents themselves reveal that all is not well in the rainbow nation.

The incidents reportedly began over a dispute over scab labour breaking a strike in Ishipingo, south of Durban, for which 'foreigners' were (unfairly, as it turns out) blamed. But this followed on Zulu King Zwelithini’s public exhortation, since denied multiple times, that foreigners in South Africa needed to pack their blankets and go home.

The violence quickly spread to the Durban CBD and parts of Johannesburg. 7 people were killed and around 9000 people were displaced of whom 900 remain in a hastily erected camp. In addition countless businesses, mainly in the small convenience spaza shop sector, have been closed, and an at times heated public debate has ensued concerning the phenomenon’s origins and proposed cures.

What is less well known is that these events cannot be construed as an isolated outbreak. Xenophobic attacks have become an established part of the South African landscape since 2008 when over 63 people were killed and 100,000 displaced. Since 2010, there have been an average of two serious incidents a week while an estimated 350 to 500 migrants have been killed.

Statistics for incidents of rape, corrupt practice enforced on migrants by officials, and the creation of bylaws to exclude migrants from opening businesses are, understandably, more difficult to come by. The casualties would have been far higher if it weren’t for the considerable efforts of some NGOs and UN agencies to try to alleviate tensions and ensure appropriate law enforcement when tensions mount.

The wider context is a country with a young demographic and whose unemployment rate is 25.6 per cent with youth unemployment topping 50 per cent. Economic growth rates are modest at around 2 per cent – not enough to absorb school leavers into the job market – and in several traditional employment sectors, such as mining, restructuring gathers pace as hitherto cheap labour is laid off in favour of more mechanised operations with a smaller, more skilled staff.

While historical factors help to explain much of this, neither they nor the characteristics themselves adequately account for xenophobia and its very narrow target band of African immigrants. Some light to this quandary may be shed by looking at the government response.

A Special Ministerial Committee was formed and initiated Operation Fiela, which translates as tidy or clean up, supposedly aimed at arresting criminals in some hot spot areas. Military and police raids have been conducted and some 900 foreigners and 168 nationals detained on, mainly, charges of illegal possession of firearms and, in the case of many of the foreigners, lack of documents.

Is the operation a crime or an immigration-control measure? DHA minister Gigaba maintains the number of undocumented foreigners in the country to be 300,000, in a population of just over 54 million, with many of these having already been deported. While some contraband and weaponry have been uncovered, many – if not most – of the undocumented migrants picked up have been found subsequently to possess the required documents – just not on their person at the time of arrest. And the suspicion is that others had been previously 'allowed' to stay as a result of collusion with corrupt officials or bureaucratic incompetence, or both.

At the same time tourism has been hit, partly by the news of xenophobic attacks, but more so by the institution of new regulations which require tourists to apply in person to a South African mission for visas as well as carry unabridged birth certificates for their children. Such measures are crippling an industry which traditionally forms a source of employment for low (as well as high) skilled people – the area of need most critical in the unemployed labour pool. The same regulations extend to work visas with onerous provisions for Labour Department physical inspections of businesses hoping to employ a foreign national.

Elsewhere government is criticised for its expensive yet underperforming education system, whose graduates are often ill-suited to employment outcomes or tertiary studies. Business confidence and the capacity for entrepreneurship – which, ironically, many migrants bring – lie at unusually low levels.

One senses a government fearful, out of touch and with few options, but resorting to populist scapegoating that stigmatise the migrant and reinforce the very xenophobic attitudes they are trying to expunge. More deeply it has found itself incapable of creating an inclusive narrative that enlists all South Africans in the cause of their nation-building. In its absence, discouragement of business competition and an undercurrent of entitlement, reminiscent of the Voortrekker exodus-like narrative, and which construes the outside world as fundamentally hostile, emerge.

This contrasts with the few days, eighteen months ago, when the country came together to mourn Nelson Mandela. The weather was awful, the trains didn’t run on time and communication was at times dreadful. But one saw a diverse South African people united in common sentiment for their national father. These few days showed the country’s true potential for greatness, sadly which remains largely unrealised in these troubled days.

writerDavid Holdcroft is an Australian Jesuit who works as Southern Africa Regional Director for Jesuit Refugee Service.

Topic tags: David Holdcroft, South Africa, xenophobia, refugees, migration, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Not only the xenophobic murders and violence in South Africa has focused the attention of the world on the country, but the twenty cruel murders of white people in the last month has also caused shockwaves internationally, while locally it has hardly had any effect. Why?? In particular, the murder of the elderly nun Gertrude Tiefenbacher (86) as well as a well-known figure in the international film industry, Mr. Greg Poustie (45) is echoing worldwide. In South Africa the media has hardly taken notice of because the victims are "politically incorrect". Whites as a minority are more afected with hate crimes in South Africa and the world is silent. Just shows the power of political correctness. Evil flourish when good men and women, of all races, are silent...

Henri | 20 May 2015  

Goodness gracious!!! Dark skinned African people being xenophobes. I thought such a beast existed only in the world of while skinned people particularly of European origin. I will be really disillusioned should I discover that Asian peoples are also xenophobes - God forbid. It seems that when the world produces a Nelson Mandela, great changes and benefits ensue during his presence on this Earth. The same may be said of Jesus of Nazareth, Pope John 23, Oscar Schindler and innumerable others. When they depart, however, those left behind seem to revert very quickly indeed to self interest and bugger everyone else. We must hope and pray that Pope Francis remains well and active and stays with us for a long time, so that we might gain some permanent care for our fellow human beings no matter where they come from. History suggests, however, that we shouldn't hold our breaths.

john frawley | 20 May 2015  

Henri, you somehow manage to define acceptance of murder as "political correctness" and then go on to make a general comment about this "political correctness" as defined by you. The term has become meaningless and your misuse of it weakens the good points that you make. Injustice, murder, violent xenophobia, religious persecution can never come under even the most fanciful definition of political correctness and this misuse of the term tends to trivialises gross evil and should never be resorted to.

Barry Breen | 20 May 2015  

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