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Xenophobia plagues ‘rainbow nation’

South Africa's wave of anti-immigrant attacks rooted in postcolonial political problems

April 20, 2015 2:00AM ET

Since the end of apartheid, groups of South Africans have exacted xenophobic violence against other African nationals. Outsiders are typically shocked, since this behavior appears at odds with the country’s marketing of itself as a “rainbow nation” and with the ruling African National Congress’ long history of Pan-Africanism.

The attackers, like the victims, are usually poor and black. Explanations for this violence usually center on people’s unhappiness over the slow pace of racial reconciliation, enduring unemployment and lack of opportunity. Poor black South Africans, the explanations go, strike at those closest to them: migrants from elsewhere in Africa who live next door to them.

However, for that simmering resentment to turn violent, it requires organization and sanction from official sources such as political leaders and popular authorities. The journalist Kwanele Sosibo has documented how much of the xenophobic violence that erupted in 2008 resulted from organized efforts. For example, in Tembisa, a township east of Johannesburg, the violence was predated by blackmail by local community leaders against migrant shopkeepers to pay him to stop looters. Last week, migrants talked of receiving messages on social media warning them of the impending attacks. Other research and in-depth journalism—including a special report by Al Jazeera English (produced just before the latest round of violence), have come to similar conclusions.

The current round of violence was triggered by the remarks of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, who can claim to rule over about 10 million people. Speaking publicly at the end of March in rural KwaZulu-Natal, Zwelithini said that foreigners “are everywhere” and that they “dirty our streets” with “their unsightly goods.” Zwelithini finished his incendiary remarks by saying it was his and the government’s “responsibility” to ask foreigners “to pack their bags and go back to their countries.” The king also reportedly compared immigrants to “lice” and “ants” in his speech.

Soon after, parts of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, which Zwelithini claims as his kingdom, were overrun by groups of young men attacking anyone they deemed foreign as well as looting shops and properties. That initial spate of violence encouraged more waves of attacks that have continued for almost two weeks now and spread to inner city Johannesburg.

When confronted, Zwelithini claimed the meaning of his words had been distorted in translation (he originally spoke in Zulu). However, a tape of his speech online stands as evidence of his words. Some critics, including an ANC-supporting media group, have called for Zwelithini to be brought before the country’s Human Rights Commission.

The ambivalent reaction of the country’s president, Jacob Zuma, and the ruling ANC has been mystifying. The party dominates electoral politics in KwaZulu-Natal and it is plausible to conclude that ANC supporters are doing most of the violence. 

Yet the president did not travel immediately to the scene of the violence, announcing a trip to Indonesia. More importantly, Zuma has still not rebuked the king. Zuma’s most substantial public response has consisted of reading a statement in Parliament in Cape Town — thousands of miles from ground zero of the violence. An opposition leader rightly criticized him for his body language, which suggested lack of urgency and empathy with the victims. 

The South African minister of water and sanitation wrote on Facebook that in one Johannesburg township, Somali and Pakistani immigrants were orchestrating ‘a subtle takeover’ of local shops.

How to explain Zuma’s behavior? One could argue that it is typical of his governing style: To do very little, try to appear above the fray and simply hope the problem goes away. But it perhaps reflects more profoundly a cynical electoral strategy: Local government elections are scheduled for next year and in KwaZulu-Natal province ANC political dominance is tied to forms of traditional authority. Zuma also became president riding on a wave of Zulu ethnic nationalism. So the ANC needs King Zwelithini. It was therefore not surprising when the national minister of home affairs, the official responsible for immigration, first criticized the King for his incendiary remarks, then apologized to him.

More significantly, Zwelithini’s comments are actually not that unusual. They are consistent with statements by government leaders and political figures close to the ruling party. The head of the country’s congress of traditional leaders who doubles as an ANC MP supported Zwelithini’s claim that his hate speech was lost in translation. But more damning, as Africa Check reports, have been the outbursts of some of Zuma’s cabinet ministers. Only weeks before Zwelithini’s comments, the minister of water and sanitation wrote on Facebook that in one Johannesburg township, Somali and Pakistani immigrants were orchestrating “a subtle takeover” of local shops. And in January, one week after locals looted Somali-owned shops in Soweto, the minister of small business development said foreign businesses “are here as a courtesy” and should share their “trade secrets” with South Africans. Government policy on migration, when it comes to other Africans, also reflects these attitudes. African visitors complain of harassment, arbitrary arrests or at regular intervals mass deportations.

Yet more than anything else, the violence strikes at what is at the heart of post-apartheid South African identity. For all the talk of hospitality and “ubuntu,” xenophobic violence is a reflection of how the ruling ANC and most South Africans understand the boundaries of “South African-ness.” As commentator Sisonke Msimang suggests, what binds black and white South Africans together is a kinship based on their shared experience of colonialism and apartheid. Msimang argues that in South Africa:

Foreigners are foreign precisely because they cannot understand the pain of apartheid, because most South Africans now claim to have been victims of the system. Whether white or black, the trauma of living through apartheid is seen as such a defining experience that it becomes exclusionary; it has made a nation of us. 

This is similar to a brown or black third-world immigrant trying to penetrate one or other European identity. Try as he might, he can never be fully Swedish, Danish or German. While these northern Europeans may hold an exclusionary, racial view of themselves or their nation as “white,” they share with South Africans an unwillingness to expand the boundaries of their identity. If you come from another African country, you can never become fully South African, even if you become a citizen.

In addition, for black South Africans the anti-apartheid project was framed in the first instance in nationalist terms. And that struggle promised its followers liberation from the poverty, racism, exclusion and inequality that they were experiencing. Yet, most black South Africans have experienced nothing of the sort since 1994. All that their political leaders can offer them now is chauvinism.

This is a post-colonial problem and South Africa is not exceptional. Recall the mass expulsions between Nigeria and Ghana of emigrants from both countries in the 1980s, Uganda’s ejection of Asians, the struggle over Ivoirite that broke Cote d’Ivoire apart for a while or the way the Kenyan state has mistreated its Somali citizens since independence. The specifics in South Africa may be different, but the ways in which we respond follow a same pattern. The problems of South Africa since 1994 are rooted in its unsatisfactory political settlement, in which the enormity of the problems it inherited is papered over by feel-good politics and the neoliberal course it has embarked on since. But like many other African states, we choose instead to discharge our anger on easy scapegoats: those we deem foreigners. 

Sean Jacobs, a native of Cape Town, South Africa, teaches at the New School. He founded the blog Africa Is a Country

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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