The recent upsurge in anti-immigrant attacks in South Africa has renewed concerns about the episodic wave of what some people call xenophobic attacks in that country. It is estimated that between 2008 and 2015, about 350 people lost their lives in such ‘xenophobic’ attacks in the country. But is it really right to call the attacks ‘xenophobia’?
A starting point is to understand that in South Africa, the term ‘foreigner’ has a pejorative meaning and usually refers to African and Asian nationals. Other foreigners, especially Whites from America and Europe, are usually seen and treated as “tourists” or “expats”. Following from this, some have rejected the notion that what we have been witnessing in dramatic scales in South Africa since the dismantling of the Apartheid regime in 1994 could be called ‘xenophobia’ – in the sense in which the term is traditionally defined as “the unreasoned fear of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange”. Some have suggested calling it ‘Afrophobia’ (hatred of Africans) because the attacks target essentially enterprising African immigrants from Somalia, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique and Malawi who often own shops and other businesses in the country’s informal economy. Afrophobia will however not capture the full picture since nationals from Bangladesh and Pakistan are equally profiled and targeted. For this, I will suggest that a more apt terminology is ‘Afro-Asiaphobia’.
Mandela’s country has unfortunately a long history Afro-Asiaphobia. Though the Apartheid governments made no bones of their dislike of non-white visitors, anti-foreigner feelings paradoxically worsened after the dismantling of Apartheid in 1994. Even before the 2008 orgy of violence in which an estimated 62 people lost their lives, there had been pockets of violence against mainly Blacks and Asians. For instance according to a 1998 Human Rights Watch report, immigrants from Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique living in the Alexandra township were “physically assaulted over a period of several weeks in January 1995, as armed gangs identified suspected undocumented migrants and marched them to the police station in an attempt to ‘clean’ the township of foreigners.” In September 1998 a Mozambican and two Senegalese were thrown out of a train by a group returning from a rally that blamed foreigners for unemployment, crime and spreading of AIDS. In October 2001 residents of the Zandspruit informal settlement gave Zimbabweans 10 days to leave the area. When the foreigners failed to do so within the stipulated deadline, they were forcefully evicted and their shacks burned down and looted. In August 2006 Somali refugees had to appeal for protection after 21 Somali traders were killed in July of that year and 26 more in August.
Causes of Afro-Asiaphobia
There are several causes of anti- African and Asian sentiments in South Africa:
One, the country’s ‘xenophobia’ reflects her history of isolationism – both geographically and socio-economically under the Apartheid regime. Geographically the country is at the southern most tip of Africa. A combination of its geographical isolation and its historical ostracization under Apartheid led many Black South Africans to internalize the belief by White South Africans that though the country is located in Africa, it is not really ‘African’. White South Africans would often describe their African identity as a ‘belonging of another type’. It is suspected that Black South Africans, behaving true to the home-Negro versus farm Negro dichotomy, looked down on their fellow Black Africans. For this, it is not uncommon to hear Black South Africans who travel to other African countries say that they ‘travelled to Africa’ (instead of saying for instance that they travelled to Ghana or Nigeria) or call citizens of other African countries ‘Africans’ (suggesting that they do not see themselves as Africans). In fact some scholars have suggested that Thabo Mbeki’s famous ‘I am an African Speech’, which he made as Deputy President on behalf of the ANC in 1996, was meant to resolve the nagging question of whether South Africa should regard itself as an African country or a different country which happens to be in Africa.
Two, in her very important book, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (2003), Amy Chua, a Chinese American Professor at Yale Law School explores the ethnic conflict caused in many societies by disproportionate economic or political influence wielded by “market dominant minorities”. She notes for instance that though the Chinese Filipino community is 1% of the population of the country, it controls 60 percent of the economy, with the result being envy and bitterness on the part of the majority against the minority. Again in Indonesia, while the Chinese Indonesian community makes up only 3% of the population, it controls 70 % of the economy. Other examples of ‘market-dominant minorities’ given by Chua include overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia; whites in Latin America and South Africa; Israeli Jews in Israel and the Middle East; Croats in the former Yugoslavia; Yoruba, Igbo, Kikuyu, Tutsis, Indians and Lebanese, among others, in sub-Saharan Africa
For Chua, tension and conflicts are often inherent in the relationship between the ‘the economic dominant minority’ and the poor majority in the context of liberal democracy. For her, when “free market democracy is pursued in the presence of a market-dominant minority, the almost invariable result is backlash” because “overnight democracy will empower the poor, indigenous majority. What happens is that under those circumstances, democracy doesn’t do what we expect it to do – that is, reinforce markets.”
Three, xenophobia is one of the contradictions of globalization – as it is with urbanization. While globalization is making the world a global village, countries that probably benefit the most from the globalization process resist the dilution of the purity of their community and the fear and envy of the ‘market dominant minorities’. At the national level, urbanization creates a similar challenge. For instance, in Nigeria, the indigene-settler dichotomy in different parts of the country has sometimes led to the sort of violence and anti ‘foreigner’ sentiment associated with xenophobia.
Four, as one of the wealthiest countries in Africa, South Africa draws migrants from poor countries some of who come to work or to escape violence in their home countries. With unemployment running at over 25 percent in South Africa, it is convenient for manipulative politicians and demagogues to blame the foreigners for taking their jobs and other opportunities. Such opportunists tap into citizens’ frustration–aggression response for their selfish ends. This seems to be the case with Mario Khumalo’s new anti-immigrant party, South African First, which inflames the situation with a bogus claim that there are 13 million immigrants in South Africa (which has a population of 54 million) despite the fact that the United Nations had estimated the total immigrant population in South Africa in 2015 at 3.1 million.
What is to be done?
I can understand the emotionalism that has attended the recent wave of Afro-Asiaphobia, especially the targeting of Nigerians in South Africa. The Nigerian students that rioted and gave South Africa ultimatums did what students naturally do. The civil society activists are also doing what is expected of them.
I agree that the government’s response has been tepid – and totally bereft of the sort of anger and tough talk expected of any serious country whose nationals are targeted in another country. I understand even less the rather timid response of the National Assembly. What is the point of high-ranking members of the National Assembly taking a trip to South Africa to register their displeasure when the government could have immediately recalled its High Commissioner in South Africa for briefing and asked the South African High Commissioner to go home for briefing? There is a clear need to talk and act tough in situations like this – even if symbolically – to assuage the public’s mood. That the government failed to do so is unfortunate.
While I believe Nigerians are right to strongly condemn the episodic waves of ‘xenophobia’ in South Africa, we should however also bear in mind that xenophobia exists in virtually all parts of the world in different degrees, including in our own country. And this has only been accentuated under the twin conditions of the globalization of markets and the triumphalism of liberal democracy. For instance in 1969 Ghana’s Aliens Compliance Order led to hundreds and thousands of Nigerian immigrants being forced to leave the country. Nigeria ‘retaliated’ on a much bigger scale with the Expulsion Order of 1983 (reordered in 1985) which resulted in more than 700,000 Ghanaian immigrants being expelled from Nigeria in a very short space of time and with some of their businesses inhumanely confiscated.
Essentially therefore, beyond rhetoric and emotionalism, the mainstreaming of xenophobia calls for new conversations and new confidence-building measures between host communities and immigrants. The fears of both communities must be honestly acknowledged and addressed rather than masked by political correctness – as has been the practice in many parts of the world – until recently.