Updated: Jan 21
Barely four years since President Jacob Zuma addressed the South African Parliament on xenophobic killings, what he sketchily termed violence and restraint, South Africans have, again, taken to the streets to root out foreigners believed to be taking more than their fair share of their country’s pleasantries. Although unconfirmed, it’s believed that at least two Malawians have been killed in a spat of xenophobic attacks that are being fanned by anti-immigration rhetoric amidst a stiffening campaign for presidential and administrative elections later in the year. As a weapon handed to mostly poor, idle and frequently folk with a high propensity to find fault, the excitement brewing with this new resurgence is likely to give them something worthwhile to keep them busy with a socio-economic variable that will be hard to prove insignificant.
Malawians, like any one of the 2.2 million immigrants in South Africa (according to the 2011 census), are under the keen eye of an upset host citizenry who, for its own good reasons, has once more taken to hurting the kwerekwere as a message that it’s about time they packed up and left. But, like the last time, the xenophobic attacks in South Africa are only a part of a bigger discourse to be had at continental and country levels in Africa.
Amidst the 2015 events, President Zuma exclaimed, to an agreeable level, that the solution lay in the development of the African countries where scores of migrants originate at a time. This would work to prevent the massive exodus of these souls seeking greener pastures in his country. He was right in that, relative to many African countries, South Africa truly offers a wider range of opportunities for work and business, and most of all a tangible opportunity for self-improvement, no matter how humble. So, the logic that if countries like Malawi did more to improve economic opportunities for their people back home, the impetus to take the dangerous trek southwards would be quelled. In addition, the country would be in a better position to attract only the quality of skills that it would benefit from rather than create a tangent on the provision of public services born on the taxpayer’s back.
But Mr. Zuma’s argument falls short on an important level. The spats of xenophobia have occurred at the hand of a citizenry that suffers pretty much the same predicament as the bulk of the immigrants it is scaring away. The character of the narrative has not changed: it is either about immigrants stealing jobs from the South African or that the immigrant steals a worthy asset to South Africans, their choty goties, a.k.a. women. Clearly, these rants come from temples that either lack decent occupations or hold the types of occupation that still grant enough idle time to take one’s imagination beyond the bounds of sanity.
Yet, more importantly, one must also examine the fringes on which the massacres have taken place. If Marikana would be considered an example, the demographics concerned represent ‘disgruntled’ South Africa, where a small spark of controversy is often destined for a full-blown flame. But the pangs of Apartheid also continue to affect the dynamic today, in that the definition of ‘the other’ crystalizes much quicker and clearer by the natives. This appears to have created a sense of entitlement that is unmatched by the sort of effort justifying everything there is to fight for. In the end, it’s hate that easily stares in the face of reason.
On Mr. Zuma’s failure to recognize the enemy from within, that is an economy that works for everyone, this website deems Julius Malema is right to call out the lukewarm attention that South African authorities are paying to the worsening migrant situation. Of course, he also sensibly pleads with his fellow countrymen on how uninformed their expression is. Mr. Malema’s argument that the pervasive colonial mindset of the perpetrators is detrimental not only to South Africa’s economy but also Africa’s cohesion holds water in that the separation of boundaries that were only introduced by colonialists is a fabrication that South Africans erroneously weaponize against fellow Africans. This is fundamental to the country’s ability to reap long-term economic benefits from the high volume of international trade with its neighbors, even though Mr. Malema’s sentiments fell short of cautioning how such shortsightedness importantly compromises South Africa’s political leverage at the continental level.
But immigrants themselves tend to make an important contribution to their plight. For example, Austin (real name withheld), a Malawian laborer in Johannesburg, laments how “zinthu sizili bwino ku Joni” (the situation is bad in Johannesburg), reflecting on his unmet need for friendlier neighbors which keeps him more in hiding than at the work he migrated for in the suburbs. The principle challenge facing Austin is the tendency to cluster with fellow Malawians in the same neighborhoods, which renders him and his roommates an easy target when the neighbor’s appetite to hit something awakens. In part, it’s easy for Austin’s group to show they have finally found the life of dreams – of course, defined within their limits – to live smiling every day, oblivious to the frowns their happy faces cause around them. So, while their concentration in certain townships serves their needs for social homogeneity, it undoubtedly creates antagonisms with many a neighbor that do not share in on the bliss.
It’s no doubt that Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s President, has a job to do to keep the simmering feelings of hate for immigrants at bay, however tempting it is to simply agree with voters in an election year. Policies for including many of the youthful groups that have largely engaged in the attacks must go beyond provision of services that will keep them nice and warm in their circumstances, in turn making them swell with dependency, but should engage them in real work that attracts decent returns to time and labor. Doing nothing more than subsidizing the status quo is damaging to the future of South Africa. In the unlikely scenario where, say, all immigrants were to disappear, idle and disgruntled groups would only have to shift their attention towards the enemy within, their seemingly better-off compatriots.
This is because the analytics of xenophobia in South Africa show that the grievances from many of the townships where it brews are oblivious of the real posh privileges that fellow South Africans hold, including the social and economic advantages that they wield in keeping happy with the status quo. After all, as long as there currently is an enemy that is easy prey to attack presents no collateral damage on the country, there will be no moral or even political stimulus to improve the fortunes of South Africans in distress.