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Africa and South Africa’s Xenophobia: a Prognosis

December 11, 2019

By James N. Kariuki*

Roots of South Africa’s Inequality

Last year the World Bank proclaimed South Africa to be the most unequal country in the world. A decade earlier in 2008, the world’s attention had been drawn to South Africa’s xenophobic behavior. Is there a kinship between inequality and xenophobia?

South Africa’s bewildering inequality originated from apartheid. The system dedicated the second half of the 20thcentury to grabbing the state’s resources for the benefit of its comparatively small white community. By design, it reduced the country’s non-white majority to ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water,’ distinctly removed from the formal economy.

In early 1990s, Blacks’ economic irrelevance was consolidated by a weakness in the strategy to dismantle apartheid. Clearly not by design Blacks’ head negotiator, Nelson Mandela, erred by accepting political power for the black majority without corresponding economic power, especially in land ownership. In Professor Ali Mazrui’s view the consequences were dire, “…the white man said to the Blacks ‘You can take the crown and we’ll keep the jewels.” Of what value was a crown without jewels? Was Mandela duped into cursing post-apartheid South Africa to eternal inequality?

Finally, freedom in post-apartheid South Africa placed public coffers within the reach of hitherto non-existent black bureaucratic elite. Especially during Jacob Zuma’s presidency (2009 – 2019) the ‘rainbow nation’ was subjected to staggering economically-draining monster, the ‘state capture.’ On the whole, black communities were further sidelined from the nearly-crippled national economy.  

Missing Basic Services

Given the ‘disabled’ state of the economy, lack of service delivery became central to the xenophobic eruptions that have bedeviled democratic South Africa since 2008. Unfortunately, various governments have been short of funds to adequately address basic social needs; public coffers have been illegitimately depleted. How were the governments of the day to explain to its citizens freedom without jobs and life’s necessities? This was a classic case of a crown-without-jewels in action.

To its credit South Africa’s ruling party has never overtly endorsed xenophobic or Afro-phobic behavior. Indeed the ANC has consistently emphasized indebtedness to post-colonial Africa for unwavering support during the anti-apartheid campaign.  In this context, it would be dishonest for the party to engage in discriminatory behavior toward fellow African immigrants after 1994. Where others see xenophobia or Afro-phobia, ANC continues to detect criminality.

South Africa’s officialdom istoo astute not to be aware that lack of service delivery is the central driver of xenophobic discontent. Leaders of the violent outbreaks are mostly the ‘born-frees,’ the youthful post-apartheid generation.  Their facts of life bind them to the black communities.  They are hungry and agitated.  Joblessness reigns supreme where the national unemployment is at 29 percent.

The township dwellers are angry with everybody, including the government and ‘foreigners.’ They cannot vent their anger on the government in fear of overwhelming reprisals; memories of the Marikana tragedy linger.  Immigrants become the available and sitting ducks: distinct, defenseless and reachable. Political agitators easily convert them into xenophobic scapegoats. 

Self-Inflicted Wounds of Xenophobia

Ironically, attacking ‘immigrants’ in South Africa is becoming increasingly unfashionable; it is hurting South Africans and their interests more than the original targets. Of the 12 deaths in the 2019 mayhems, 10 were South African. Additionally, while immigrants lost their property, locally-owned properties were similarly looted and damaged.

The violence has also tarnished South Africa’s image, prompting reprisals against its interests. In 2019 thriving South African businesses in Nigeria were damaged by enraged mobs, emphasizing the old diplomatic maxim: protect what is ours in your country and we will spare yours in ours. To South Africa’s recurring incidents of xenophobia, Africa responded in unison: enough is enough.

The New Dawn and the Way Forward

More than his predecessors, President Cyril Ramaphosa seems to realize that xenophobic sentiments are charged by the domestic unholy alliance of poverty and inequality.  Domestically, his political slogan of the New Dawn, aspires to halt and reverse internal abuse of public funds and jumpstart the economy. Hence, the current corruption probes and unrelenting bid to cleanse state-owned enterprises.

Regarding xenophobia, the New Dawn stipulates that South Africa will work in context of Africa, particularly Nigeria, to extract the ‘cancer’ from Africa once and for all. In mid-September 2019, therefore, Ramaphosa dispatched ‘special envoys’ to seven African countries to apologize for the violence.  

Globally, Africa tops Ramaphosa’s agenda. Mindful that South Africa is geographically in Africa, the President insists that it must work closely with the fellow giant-of-Africa, Nigeria. Accordingly in 2019 he welcomed Nigeria overture of a give-and-take-dialogue rather than engage in counter-productive exchange of accusations. Victimized Nigerians in South Africa expected more, including compensation for their lost property.

Nigeria was diplomatic but not necessarily defensive in the bilateral talks. Subtly but firmly, it insisted on one non-negotiable condition. Henceforth, South Africa will treat xenophobia as a crime; perpetrators must be prosecuted. Otherwise, the scourge will be transformed into an African continental problem.  And collective Africa is capable of punishing its offenders. Just ask the now extinct apartheid regimes.

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