South Africa’s xenophobia 2.0 : An indictment

I am embarrassed to be a South African. Writing this is actually uncomfortable. Nonetheless it may help to clarify my mind and counter some of the cognitive dissonance that the latest xenophobic attacks bring.

I do not know what to say to my friends, fellow students and acquaintances from Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and other parts of this continent. I have no satisfactory responses to inquiries from friends in parts of the Diaspora or South African citizens who are currently out of the country. Whilst all sane South Africans condemn the violence I sense a sense of helplessness. There are a few extremists who go to the extent of beating, looting and shaming fellow Africans who happen to be born further up the continent. These extremists, it must be said, share views that are not as negligible as we would like to believe. That said there are many South Africans who are embarrassed, disgusted, disappointed, dejected and infuriated. Most troubling however is the sense of paralysis that has been induced onto those Africans who do not have the sociopathic urge to kill or steal from people on the basis that they were not born in Afrique du Sud.


It is a long established fact that South Africa has a dearth of leadership, the death happened in 2007, the funeral was in Polokwane, the mourning period seems infinite. From the crises at Eskom, Post office, schools, municipalities to the national assembly and the presidency the common factor is a (mis)leadership of gargantuan proportions.  When people were massacring each other in KZN, before the 1994 elections, Nelson Mandela would visit the sites of death and clearly articulate his (and his peers) disapproval and pave a way forward. The current miscreants operate on the level of denial. The current violence has been festering for years, in fact it never disappeared following the 2007/8 attacks. Unfortunately our elected leaders deny, deny and deny again. The tired official line from government blames the attacks on criminal elements. This is a rubbish argument that exposes shoddy thinking. If the criminal elements only target Africans from Somalia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania and not South Africans or people from other continents than these elements are afrophobic/xenophobic first and criminal second.

The leadership is overwhelmingly underwhelming. The lethargically minded Zulu king, who has less relevance than a heater salesman in hell, spewed vitriolic comments that were the direct precipitant of the current violence in KZN. I heard from South Africans caught in the crossfire on Tuesday, 14 April 2015, that the group of South African extremists were singing songs that suggested they were defending the king “sebethinta u-Zulu…”. None of the leaders in government, who give a sizeable portion of our taxes to Zwelithini, have come out and condemned his moronic remarks. Senzo Mchunu, KZN premier’s, pathetic attempt to deflect a question on this matter was disappointing to watch.

Perhaps most disturbing in the leadership front is that the ANC liberators who used to be accommodated in Tanzania, Zim, Zambia and elsewhere on the continent are either treating this matter with nonchalance or worse still making statements that add fuel to the blazing fire. Ministers Nomvula  Mokonyane and Lindiwe Zulu have made questionable and somewhat ominious statements in recent months. The much critiqued VISA restrictions imposed by Gigaba’s home affairs ministry have proven to add to frustrations for students and workers from other parts of the continent. It marks the complete failure of the African Renaissance vision espoused by leaders like Thomas Sankara and our own Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki. For some students from other parts of Africa entry into South African universities is enabled but they cannot do the practical component of their studies in the republic whilst some candidates apply for jobs and are turned down because jobs are reserved for South Africans. It is depressing to think that the European Union enables a German in Spain to be treated with more of the much touted Ubuntu that a Zimbawean in South Africa.

Conflation of issues

The notion that foreign internationals (this includes people from the Americas, Asia, and Europe etc.) are stealing South Africans’ jobs is a misnomer. In fact if it were true the current attack would be directed at the wrong class of foreign internationals. As a country with a scarcity of skills we import labour for technical, business, education and other professions. The people being attacked are largely not in this group. The attacks are happening in CBDs and townships, not at the JSE or in mine house boardrooms.

Related to the stealing of jobs fallacy is the argument that Somalians, Zimbabweans, Pakistanis, Mozambicans are opening small businesses and running locals out of business by selling on the cheap. This argument makes sense at face value but we must not succumb to lazy thinking. We have an entire ministry for small businesses that is geared towards assisting SOUTH AFRICANS establish and optimise small and medium enterprises. Now if a foreign international, who may or may not have legal authority to be in the country, can outperform a South African who has government support and the advantage of knowing the target market then surely there is a systematic problem.  This points to South Africans having a poor culture of entrepreneurship. A young person who can source funding for a degree/diploma suddenly cannot establish and maintain their own small business, in the field that they studied in? If the issue is ‘unfair competition’, find out where the Somalian traders are sourcing their goods from, if these are not SABS approved then deal with this issue.

I can hypothesise that amongst those small business owners from Zim, Somali or China can keep their prices lower by minimising their costs. For instance I know traders from the aforementioned countries who use the same accommodation for business and living. Additionally they may not wear the most expensive clothing and are advantaged by the fact that they would be denied credit by South African lenders. In any case even if the targeted traders were scheming to run South Africans out of business one would expect us as South Africans to be slightly more imaginative than ‘solving’ this dilemma by looting, burning and killing people with the disdain we reserve for mosquitoes and cockroaches.

Psychosocial implications

Sociology students would be better equipped to explain why our xenophobia is taking on a racial stance. It is almost as if the attacker can only feel better about themselves, and their own despised self image, by finding someone who can be seen to be lesser. A Mozambican with a darker, melanin induced, hue and an accent that is not familiar fits the bill far better that a Greek or Jewish trader.

From a theoretical perspective two concepts come to mind. The psychodynamic concept of displacement is noteworthy. Displacement merely refers to transferring negative feelings from an appropriate object to a less threatening object. Metaphorically it is illustrated in the example of the man who is frustrated by his unreasonable boss, does not react to him/her, goes home and takes out his frustration on the wife. Similarly I hold the belief that people frustrated by lack of job/land prospects instead of confronting themselves, the gatekeepers of the economy and our elected leadership are targeting black foreign internationals with the flimsiest of excuses.

The Contact Hypothesis Theory is also relevant. This theory simply suggests that one way of increasing tolerance (and hopefully acceptance) between different groups is to have them come into non-conflictual contact on equal terms. Unfortunately for those foreign internationals who are in a lower social class such contact is virtually non-existent. I have observed that generally those South Africans who work or study with people from other African countries are more aware of their positive qualities and thus less likely to regurgitate the stereotypes of foreigners as drug peddlers who steal jobs. For example students from Zimbabwe generally have a high work ethic. In fact African students who are the cream of the crop in their countries and have benefitted from a superior education system enrich the university experience for all students. The othering and demonization of Africans legitimizes the racist ideologies of the colonisers who constructed the borders that we have now adopted and are willing to kill for.

Way forward

The sense of paralysis remains yet it cannot, it must not, persist ad infinitum. In the heat of the moment refugee camps are being set up and food, clothing and blanket supplies are needed. Those leaders in government, religious leaders and civil society who have taken a stand against the brutalization of one black by another, one African against another, one human being against another human being must be commended. Leaders need to lead the tackling of associated problems used to excuse our appalling actions be it fixing the education system, creating the conditions for fighting unemployment, tackling the drug problem, controlling porous borders or equipping home affairs and embassies with skilled and compassionate staff. The police, as some have been doing, need to do their job as per their job descriptions. We need to be mindful of what our own constitution says and act in accordance. Matters of intolerance to difference require massive moral and educational attention. Today it is xenophobia, tomorrow it will be homophobia, religious intolerance or some other point of difference. Some efforts are indirect but influential, we insist on importing Justin Bieber’s music and neglect to give airplay to talented African artists thus perpetuating our negative view of our own people and glorifying that which is truly foreign. The current excuse of an education system is successfully creating a generation of uncritical and lazy thinking South Africans who are unemployable by virtue of being unskilled. These individuals are frustrated and they can be swayed in any direction. It’s all good and well when the direction is towards a particular face in the voting booth but an unthinking mob can attack whosoever irks it.



2 thoughts on “South Africa’s xenophobia 2.0 : An indictment

  1. Thank you for a thoughtful and articulate article. It comes down to a lack of statesmanship amongst the leadership who, from my observations from afar, are more interested in looking after themselves than getting down and tackling the tough issues that face the country.

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