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Arrogance of Leadership, or Xenophobia? Anti-immigrant Violence in South Africa


So South Africans are at it again. It is more than a week now since attacks on immigrants from elsewhere in Africa started again. As I wrote this article, media were reporting 12 dead. Media images coming out of there show businesses owned by immigrant Africans being looted and torched, their homes destroyed. They show South Africans, men and women, carrying assorted weapons, hunting for fellow human beings whom they intend to maim or kill because they happen to be non-natives. On image has stuck and kept flashing throw my mind for some days after I saw it. It showed a man lifting up a large boulder and dropping it on the head of another man who had been pulled to the ground. The victim got up and tried to run. His aggressor ran after him, pulled him down again, and again hit him on the head with a large solid object. Clearly, he intended to kill him. It is possible he killed him.

Reactions from across Africa have been furious. In some countries people have reacted by attacking or calling for attacks on South African-owned businesses, of which there are many all over Africa, making lots of money and also employing many locals. In Nigeria whose nationals were reported as bearing the brunt of the attacks, South Africa had to shut down its diplomatic mission to ensure the safety of its diplomats. President Mohammed Buhari even despatched a special envoy to his counter-part, Cyril Ramaphosa, to discuss the situation. As a country, South Africa has suffered significant reputational damage across Africa, sub-Saharan Africa to be precise, as a result of these attacks and previous ones.

Many South Africans lived for years as refugees, having fled oppressive racist rule in their own country, and as insurgents undergoing military training in efforts that sought to undermine and eventually topple the Apartheid government. The countries that hosted them were poor. As a result, they offered little by way of material comforts. However, they were offered security and education for free. At Makerere University in Uganda in the late 198s and early 1990s, I was classmates with one Sipho, a much-liked fellow undergraduate and operative of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the then armed wing of the African National Congress, which had a large base somewhere in the countryside. We the locals offered friendship and hospitality. It was difficult not to feel a certain solidarity with South Africans. It explains the incredulity and anger felt across the continent, that South Africans are rewarding people from countries which once hosted their own refugees, with xenophobia, pillage, physical attacks, and murder.

Africans are justified to react with rage. Attacking South African missions and assets in their own countries, however, is misguided. As usual, media have not been very helpful. Focusing on the attacks as they happen is valuable. It helps us to witness the beastliness involved and to understand that South Africa is not entirely safe for Africans from elsewhere. In that way, those who might wish to travel or send their loved ones there for any reason are able to weigh their options careful before making the final decision. There are, however, aspects of what is going on and how we have got here, that remain un-discussed and are therefore not understood. Understanding them helps one contextualise the attacks and gain understanding that brings to the fore, a dilemma or dilemmas faced by South Africa as a country and the ANC government.

There is a time when South Africa was not inhospitable to Africans from elsewhere. I was one of the tens of thousands of Africans who arrived in the country only a few years after Apartheid collapsed and the ANC took over power. African immigrants and visitors were being received with open arms. For one thing, South African had huge skills gaps which the government was happy to plug with skilled Africans from elsewhere. At first, I went to visit and to attend the birth of one of my sons. Alex was born in a Cape Town hospital. He is now an undergraduate at the University of Cape Town and spent some of his secondary school years in the same city. It was during this visit that I got interested in spending some more time in the country. I had travelled to Cape Town from Europe, at a time when I had pretty much made up my mind to return to Africa after many years. South Africa, a “Europe in Africa” as far as I was concerned at the time, offered the prospect of a comfortable professional life and a standard of living I couldn’t possibly expect in my own native Uganda.

Then I saw an advert for a job at the University of Witwatersrand, which was in line with my intellectual interests. I had just completed my doctoral studies and so this was timely. I applied. I was offered the job. It was on contract, but with bright prospects of serving as a foundation for a long-term posting. As it happens, I stayed for only 4 years, after spending most of my time in a rural setting, studying a small community of Mozambican refugees, foreigners like myself, who had fled from war in their own country. This was over 600 kilometres outside Johannesburg where the university for which I worked was based.

Living full-time in a small village, Ka Masuku, in Limpopo Province, one of South Africa’s poorest regions at the time and possibly even today, and travelling regularly to Johannesburg and spending some time there, provided me with a unique opportunity to experience life with sections of South Africa’s poor and deprived, and also members of its comfortable middle class. Even in their remote village, immigrants were no strangers to the people of Ka Masuku. In this rural backwater, many teachers in local schools and doctors in local hospitals were immigrants from countries such as Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Zambia, and Nigeria. South Africans with similar qualifications do not want to work in remote rural areas.

I was surprised to discover that there were some Ugandan herbalists locally called ‘sangoma’ as well. Some of the sangomas had amassed financial fortunes from ‘treating’ the numerous ailments, physical and spiritual, of the largely ignorant and vulnerable rural population whose belief in supernatural powers was overwhelming. The urban elite in Johannesburg and the other cities and towns I frequented such as Pretoria and Centurion where an older sibling lived and worked, also encountered immigrant Africans in their neighbours, at work, and at the schools and hospitals where they sent their children and sought health care.

From my experience and that of the many immigrant friends I had and my brother who together with his wife were – and still are – senior academics in another university, South Africans generally had no problem with us outsiders. There might be a snide remark here and there about “you people from Africa”, and the odd “makwerere” or “rigirigamba” (foreigner) taunt, but that was no different from being called “nigger” by the odd Brit here and there while I lived in the UK.  I did experience racism, but that was rare. Large numbers of white people, colleagues at the university included, were excellent human beings for whom the fact that I was black counted for nothing in the way they related to me and to other black Africans, South African and foreign. But then that was years ago. I left South Africa to return to Uganda and the Great Lakes region in 2004.

In the 15 years since I left, I have been back many times. And during that time, several episodes of violent attacks against African migrants have taken place. What has happened? Several things. First, more waves of immigrants have flowed into South Africa from its immediate neighbourhood and beyond, legally and illegally, rendering immigrants ever more conspicuous. Second, ever large numbers of South Africans, the poor especially, and among them the poor in many of South Africa’s poor slums where some of the immigrants live, have become more and more disillusioned with post-Apartheid South Africa. Their circumstances have certainly improved, but not fast enough.

A combination of high expectations and slow-paced change and for some, frustration and impoverishment because they have neither jobs nor adequate access to social services, has turned them against their immigrant neighbours who, highly driven as is usually the case with immigrants, have done relatively well. Besides owning prosperous small businesses, they are willing to take up jobs which their South African neighbours consider to be badly paid and not worth doing. Rejection of badly paid work compounds the destitution of many South Africans living in slum areas. The immigrants who take them up then appear to do well. The “they are taking our jobs” mantra originates here.

There are also, immigrants who have taken to crime, and these have now become the stuff of folklore and myth-making among South Africans, including, as we have seen on social media, public officials of notable seniority. Crime, is not a preserve of immigrant Africans, even Nigerians who have been singled out for mention. However, crime by Nigerians who dabble in drug dealing and prostitution makes headlines. Because they are foreigners, not because they are criminals as such. Populist politicians seeking cheap plaudits are whipping this up. Its idiotic but it sells to South Africa’s disillusioned poor for whom there is little else politicians can sell for immediate gratification.

Perhaps most serious, the South African government has failed to stem the tide of immigration. The decision to impose more strict rules for visa applicants, for which the Government of South Africa has been roundly condemned, was intended, among other measures, to curb immigration, mainly by those who enter legally and then stay illegally. There must be millions of foreign Africans in South Africa, of whom no one know for sure how many are illegal. The trouble with not knowing is that it opens up lots of Africans who are in South Africa legally to suspicion that they are also illegal immigrants. It conjures up images of the so-called “flooding” of South Africa by illegal immigrants. The underlying anger among those who feel that immigrants are taking things from them explains the explosion of violence against immigrants within reach, those who live among them within the shanty towns. European, Indian, Pakistani and Chinese immigrants or illegals do not for the most part live in those areas, and so they are difficult to ‘catch’.

Unable to tackle the challenge of immigration and unable to measure up to the needs of its poor citizens, the government seems at a loss to know how to react. That was clear in the way President Ramaphosa reacted to the latest explosions of violence. For some perspective, I reached out to a former colleague, a white South African and long-time supporter of the ANC, at the University of Witwatersrand. “What’s your take on what is going on down there”, I asked. Her answer pretty much sums up aspects of the problem which few talk about: “We have a government that cannot lead… Seems to me an obvious outcome of 20 years of non-delivery and arrogance of leadership. Why xenophobia? In comparison to the rest of Africa, South Africa has seen many economic migrants. Not dissimilar to the rise of the right and fascism in Europe. But in Europe they protest through the vote. Here we have people who know that their government does not listen unless they protest violently”. Food for thought.








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