From Durban to Johannesburg, many South African locals have taken to the streets, armed with knives, stones and sticks to violently protest against foreign nationals living in South Africa. They are calling for foreigners to return to their countries of origin and have vowed to avidly maintain their stance until their demands are met. Many locals believe that the presence of foreign nationals is directly linked to the surge in crime rates, and has prevented them from accessing economic opportunities and social advantages. Attacks against foreign nationals, particularly business owners has taken the form of, looting and burning of shops, bloody beatings and even neck-lacing, as anger seethes within local communities. Since the attacks started two weeks ago, a total of five people lost their lives and many more injured, amid growing tensions between locals and foreign nationals. While some foreign nationals have returned to their home countries in fear, others have vowed to fight back. Foreign nationals not affected by the current spate of attacks fear that the violence will spread to other parts of the country, if the government fails to act strongly against the perpetrators of these violent acts. Many observers, World governing bodies; including the African Union and the United Nations, foreign diplomatic missions in South Africa and African leaders have condemned the violence in the strongest of terms, calling for the South African government to act swiftly and decisively to quell the violence.
Xenophobic violence is not new to South Africa. In 2008, the country experienced a wave of violent protests and attacks directed against foreign nationals. However, this time around, many believe that recent violence was fuelled by inflammatory remarks made by the Zulu King— Goodwill Zwelithini, in Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal. He is quoted as saying that “all foreigners should pack their bags and go”. While the King has denied the link between his statement and the violence, arguing that his comments were misconstrued, he has nonetheless been reported to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) for inciting violence through hate speech.
For many foreign nationals who live in South Africa, the country represents a safe haven, free from war and strife. It is seen as the “bread basket of Africa”, a land of equal opportunity and an economic oasis. Many foreign nationals see South Africa as home away from home. For some, it is the only home they now have, and have therefore fully integrated themselves into their adopted country—South Africa. However, recent attacks threaten the peaceful co-existence between locals and foreign nationals, and has broader implications for South Africa as a whole.
First, these attacks completely disregard the political and financial assistance rendered to black South African freedom fighters during their struggle against the Apartheid regime. It is a known fact that many members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) sought refuge against the Apartheid government in various African countries like Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and Nigeria etc, where they received formal education as well as military training, political assistance and intelligence, in order to fight against white supremacy in their country. Further to this, countries like Nigeria even incorporated a mandatory tax scheme for all its civil servants, which were directed towards the liberation of all South Africans from white supremacy rule. Recent xenophobic attack is therefore a slap in the face of the efforts, contributions and sacrifices made by the people of Africa to ensure South Africa’s liberation.
Second, it is short-sighted because it fails to acknowledge the contributions made to the South African economy by foreign nationals both in the formal and informal sectors. Skilled expertise provided by foreign doctors, engineers and Information Technology (IT) specialists have gone a long way in boosting the South African economy, making it Africa’s second largest economy, after Nigeria. Services provided by foreign nationals in the informal sector have contributed immensely, and helped to bolster the economy, as many unskilled non-locals continue to provide cheap labour. Further to this, foreign shop owners sell their goods at lower prices and are willing to extend credit to locals. This keeps foreign-owned businesses afloat and prosperous, and helps them thrive, in a country where unemployment is steadily rising. Also, many foreign business owners provide employment for locals within these small to medium business enterprises. If foreign nationals are forced to “close up shop” and leave, many locals will feel the brunt, as they will be left without jobs, which will worsen the plight of unemployment and cause more social unrest.
Third, suffice it to say that the forceful expulsion of foreign nationals will create huge economic backlash and cause the loss of foreign investors, which may send the country’s economy into a tailspin. As it stands, countries like Zambia, Mozambique and Nigeria are pushing for a full boycott of all South African products until the situation is resolved. South Africa currently has significant interest in various parts of Africa, such as Multichoice (a satellite company) that broadcasts across Africa, MTN (a mobile network) in Nigeria, Pick n Pay and Shoprite (a grocery shopping chain) in Zambia, as well as Mr. Price (a clothing retailer), also in Zambia, and Sasol (an oil and gas refinery) in Mozambique etc. However, continued violence against foreign nationals will hurt South African interest both at home and abroad. This is because the country risks losing African support for its domestic products, as well as foreign investment, for fears of political uncertainty and economic instability.
Fourth, attacks against foreign nationals go against the spirit of “Ubuntu”—a term conceptualised by the South African people, which is loosely translated to mean humanity to others or togetherness. This is a vision that is fostered by the South African government and its people. As Africans we strive to be our brothers’ keepers and live together in peace and unity, no matter where we find ourselves. But these attacks go against the very principle and spirit of “African oneness”. They also mark growing intolerance towards people of other cultures and ethnicity, which seldom stops there. This is because it is cyclic in nature and may soon be re-directed at various other ethnic and cultural groups within South Africa.
Fifth, it places South African nationals living and working in various parts of Africa in a precarious position, amid fears of possible violent reprisals from the nationals of those countries. In recent reports, Sasol in Mozambique has evacuated 340 of its South African staff as a precautionary measure. However, this is not an immediate cause for concern, as African nationals have refrained from violent acts, and continue to voice their concerns, through peaceful protests at various South African High Commissions across Africa.
Sixth, it will hurt South Africa’s global image as seen by the world, taint its political and moral authority on the continent, and strain relations between South Africa and its African neighbours. As a former pariah state (under the Apartheid regime), South Africa took great strides under the leadership of the late Nelson Mandela and former President Thabo Mbeki to re-integrate itself into the global arena. It did this by providing a welcoming environment for immigrants and foreign investors alike, taking a position of leadership in resolving conflicts in African countries experiencing war, and promoting itself on the international stage. But these recent attacks seek to undo the sacrifices and efforts made by past and present leaders to ensure that South Africa is never again “forgotten” and remains a prominent player in the international scene.
In conclusion, I end with the words of former South African President, humanitarian and Statesman—Nelson Mandela.
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve…”
I hope and pray that Nelson Mandela’s vision for South Africa is not wiped away by these senseless acts of violence.