Xenophobia: quo vadis, South Africa?

Xenophobia: quo vadis, South Africa?

Recent events in and around my home city Durban have sent shivers down the spines of South Africans. Xenophobic attacks have occurred against foreigners, initially amongst owners of small businesses in Isipingo, central Durban and Verulam. There have been deaths. The social disturbances have now spread to the Witwatersrand in Gauteng province, and no end to the disturbances is yet in sight. Similar unrest occurred in 2002, 2008 and 2014.


The trigger for these events seems to be a rising antipathy and even hatred on the part of impoverished local communities. It is largely directed against foreign nationals who have migrated to South Africa in huge numbers because of political or economic pressures in their own countries. The total of such people is estimated at four million. The broader setting has been conducive to social disruption, since during times of international economic, political, religious and social disruptions, migrants and refugees are obvious targets for the focus of anger amongst those already under pressure.

President Zuma has spoken on the subject, and has apparently invited answers to the problem, from whatever quarter. This present post is a response to that invitation.

Allegations of thoughtless statements by public figures and even underlying political intrigue are emerging, and need to be investigated thoroughly. If necessary, people must be held accountable. The response by government was tardy initially, but it is gathering momentum. Numerous statements have been made by government officials and members of civil society condemning the violence. We must all do so.

Many commentators have condemned the initial media reaction, which for a time focused on debates about whether the problem represents xenophobia or afrophobia. As the problem deepened, there was a realisation that the country needed vigorous action, not words. After some vacillation, the government responded with police action to ensure the safety of people whose lives were most in jeopardy. They have now correctly discerned the wellbeing of the civilian population as a first urgent step. In Durban and Gauteng, police have clamped down on crowd violence and associated criminality.

Several thousand people have been displaced. They are being housed temporarily in tent villages, police stations and other shelters. Angered and dismayed by the harsh events, some will no doubt return to their home countries. An exodus has begun. Several states have already taken action to repatriate citizens, and South Africa’s reputation as an exemplary country where a brilliant constitution holds sway has been besmirched and the underlying social fragilities revealed.

Condemnation of the violence and desultory initial response has come from Nigeria, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and also Boko Haram and Al Shebaab. Political and economic retaliation have been threatened. The Department of Foreign Relations has been hard pressed to respond to and placate these criticisms. It is probable that South Africa will suffer in its international relations.

Some foreigners have not got relevant residence permits, and complain of experiencing corrupt practices in the registration process, muddled thinking and sometimes, enormous distances to be covered to get documents renewed.

In due course there will be the preparation of long-term plans to manage the crisis, to ensure a return to reasonably normal social interactions, and the development of a strategy to forestall recurrence. The process of introspection and planning has already begun. Unfortunately, as is so common with the managements of these sorts of events, initial reaction is to see and address only the surface manifestations, but not to drill or probe more deeply into the underlying aetiology. Clearly, the current events are symptoms of deeper things than those appearing at the surface. These have incubated and festered over decades, exacerbated by apartheid but also by mistakes made during the past few decades of ‘freedom’.

Many of the transgressors are Zulus, a nation that at one stage was the most powerful military and political body in South-east Africa. Read Shaka.The Story of a Zulu King for background. The fact is still embedded in the collective unconscious of large numbers of people, and fuels an underlying but tangible, simmering political resentment. Despite being the largest identifiable cultural entity in Southern Africa, historically they never consolidated into a nation-state such as that of the Sothos (Lesotho) or Swazis (Swaziland). There has apparently never been a satisfaction of historical ambitions.

A further provocation is that many live in a state of comparative poverty. The result is often a sense of hopelessness, loss of initiative and surrender to a sense of impotence and hopelessness. Yet amongst them are the most remarkable, kindly and precious people one can hope to meet. I have admired them for their ineffable strength of character, fortitude, courtesy and compassion despite their being in the grip of undeserved, grinding poverty. Some have become ‘family’.

In general however, South African society seems to harbour a deeply rooted propensity to resort to violence to get one’s way, and the concept of ubuntu sometimes appears more like a fragile, politically expedient construct to be trotted out when necessary, rather than a reality. It seems at times to extend no further than a narrow clan allegiance based on related names and interests. In our society there is also a measure of allegiance to larger ‘tribal’ entities whether black, brown or white, but little empathic regard for humanity in a wider context. We delude ourselves by accepting the designation ‘rainbow nation’. We have yet to earn that accolade.

The present outbursts of aggression are focused on xenophobia, which implies a fear and even hatred of foreigners or even strangers. It is a reaction that flies directly in the face of the ubuntu ethic. It has given vent to opportunistic criminality and the looting of shops and other property. Some of the anger is even alleged to originate in an attempt to clear debts by driving away the implicated business owners.

Poverty has over many years been exacerbated by the apartheid legacy which is not yet entirely expunged from current economic, political and social activities. White people are still pilloried en bloc, including those who fought apartheid. The persistence of poverty is recent years is due to a composite of syndromes such as corruption emanating from the elites within government and business, shocking labour relations underlying such events as the Marikana Massacre that have scared off overseas and domestic investment, a contested trade union battle for national hegemony, recent appalling behaviour within parliament that has set a new low bar for what can be tolerated within human interactions, and persistent and entrenched feelings of elitism, superiority and entitlement characteristic of many.

Then there is the dismal performance of many municipalities as well as parastatals such as ESCOM and SAA that have further damaged our economy. One can add the schooling system which consuming massive resources, yet produces little to reassure taxpayers and especially parents.

As usual, these current disturbances have loaded further stress onto the shoulders of the police services, still reeling from such exposes as the Marikana enquiry while trying bravely to maintain morale in the face of poor performances by some members.

South Africa has for long been describes as a ‘microcosm of the world’. With a world in turmoil, we have not needed these horrific events. Well, now a brave new world is needed. We must penetrate to current and historical fundamentals and address them responsibly to the advantage of both contesting blocs.

Some solutions might lie in the following suggestions.

  1. We are engaged here with disruptions of a complex social system. To address the trauma adequately demands intelligent systemic thinking that penetrates to the roots of the problem and tracks the various underlying threads that cause the surface manifestations we now see.
  2. We can accept that the present events will be brought under temporary control, as if a lid was put on a boiling pot. But, they will resurface in a month, a year or a decade, just as the pressure in a pot is likely to repeatedly dislodge the lid. Action and reaction will continue until lasting solutions are found. The solution lies in an impossible vision; the development of an unshakeable empathic national character that pursues a common good for all people resident in South Africa.
  3. While some roots of the present turmoil can be traced back to apartheid, events in South Africa in the past two decades have also exacerbated a steady descent to chaos. Amongst these, appalling widespread corruption coupled to political arrogance are probably the most disruptive factors that have driven people apart. More than anything else, these factors have shaken faith in positive change.
  4. As a nation, we must consolidate nationally. We must accept that historical factors are tenacious. On the massive scale inherent in our South African society, poverty is abominably difficult to ameliorate. Each individual must accept responsibility for addressing the underlying economic realities across a breadth of social entities including races, classes and genders. Civil society must more actively address poverty in creative ways. The government cannot do it all, although when one notes the past profligate and wasteful expenditure, it is clear that it could do far more than it does at present.
  5.  Individuals might accept a personal project. Families that can cope economically might help someone to build a small two-roomed house, educate a child or find employment. My wife and I have been engaged with this for the past thirty-five years. It is reaffirming and immensely enriching. I’m sure many others have done the same. The trend needs to spread.
  6.  Government must accept and value positive inputs from any quarter, insofar as it is predicated on the national good. This implies listening to opposition parties as well as ‘ordinary’ citizens. But we need action, not ‘talking heads’.
  7.  Government must stand firmly behind the Constitution and the laws that emanate from it. In practical terms they must support the Police Service in undertaking a difficult and sensitive task, uphold the courts in their decisions, and maintain the morale of municipalities in the discharge of their related duties. Their present policy of placing the security of individuals as a top, practical priority is sensible and commendable. This avoids immersion in senseless obfuscations surrounding debates on terminology and ideological imperatives.
  8.  Without fear or favour, anyone found culpable of fomenting or propagating a resort to violence or who has resorted to violence, theft or the destruction of property must be censured and if necessary brought before the law.
  9.  Government should establish a firm yet compassionate immigration/border control. This will of course always prove a contradiction. With people from other countries flooding into South Africa, many impoverished citizens feel that they are being sacrificed while the more opulent make no sacrifice. This fuels feelings of xenophobia. Yet the entitlements of migrants must also be honoured and respected.South Africa is signatory to international conventions, and there are entitlements to recognise and accommodate. Many refugees feel humiliated and let down. Those who wish to reintegrate into their communities need police protection if they are to do so safely.Accordingly, on the one hand the country must meet the dictates of conscience and international law, and on the other one needs to protect an over-burdened social service while also protecting the citizenry within our borders. More vigorous programmes of adult education such as that mounted under the Masifundisane banner some years ago will help. Whatever is done, the present muddled thinking must end.
  10.  The education system must be overhauled and transformed. It is matter for individual teachers to put right, by adopting a professional and not self-centred ‘trade unionist’ approach. Many who are in poverty in this country are the victims of an inadequate education. Many emerging from grade 12 schooling are apparently proving unemployable. I suspect that much of the fiercest resentment arises through the perception of local communities that they cannot compete fairly against the better-educated people flooding into the country. Further, school curricula need the infusion of programmes promoting interpersonal tolerance and a multi-cultural approach.
  11.  We as a nation must learn to value character, empathy and service beyond wealth. We have yet to earn the self-accorded accolade of ‘Rainbow Nation’. At present there’s no rainbow. And the darkest storm-clouds are still gathering.

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