Xenophobia in SA is real
By Shannon Ebrahim
South Africa, like many other countries across the world, is suffering from the disease of xenophobia. No amount of government denials is going to change this.
In order to successfully address this challenge, we first have to admit that it is real, and not keep papering over it like politicians across the political spectrum continue to do. It is like any affliction – until we can acknowledge it, we will never implement the cure.President Jacob Zuma and former president Thabo Mbeki have claimed, as heads of state, that South Africa was not a xenophobic nation.
Some of our ministers have claimed that South Africa cannot be xenophobic as it lets in so many refugees and asylum seekers, allowing them freedom of movement and the right to work.
But what the government does or does not allow is not a measure of our societal attitudes, and government policy cannot be the yardstick that measures whether xenophobia is rife.
One of the respected heroes of the liberation Struggle, Laloo Chiba of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, made a call almost two years ago for South Africans to take a pledge to eradicate xenophobia from our country.
In a speech he gave to the Nelson Mandela Seminar on Finding Solutions to Xenophobia, he referred to research by the Gauteng City Region Observatory which indicates that in Gauteng more than 40% of its citizens are generally xenophobic.
Xenophobia can no longer be dismissed as criminality, but it must be recognised as what it really is – a fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners. We don’t want to accept that xenophobia is a reality in our society, as this is not what we are supposed to be about.
We pride ourselves on being a nation of tolerance and ubuntu, and after all, the masses of our people spent decades fighting against racism.
Africa is the cornerstone of our foreign policy, and drives our policy priorities. It would seem a paradox to admit that we are simultaneously suffering from the disease of xenophobia, the target of which is largely nationals from other African countries.
Here is the irony. As a country, we cannot succeed in effectively implementing our African agenda, and forging economic diplomacy on the continent, if we continue to pretend xenophobia is not an issue.
For as long as we do that, xenophobia will spread with impunity, and other African states will no longer be as welcoming to our nationals or our businesses.
Consider the warning issued to South Africa last week by Abike Dabiri-Erewa, President Muhammadu Buhari’s adviser on foreign affairs: “The continued killing of Nigerians will result in dire consequences if not stopped.”
She also noted, “We have lost 116 Nigerians (in attacks in South Africa) in the last two years. And in 2016 alone, about 20 were killed.
“This is unacceptable to the people and Government of Nigeria.”
We cannot afford to develop a reputation that other African nationals are not safe within our borders.
This works against our leadership role on the continent. It also works against our economic interests when 100 South African companies are doing business in Nigeria, including MTN, Eskom, SAA, and Stanbic Merchant Bank.
MTN’s offices in Nigeria were attacked last week as part of anti-SA xenophobia protests.
It is embarrassing that the Nigerian government felt the need to request the AU’s urgent intervention. The inference is that South Africa is either unable or unwilling to contain the waves of violence against foreigners that erupts every so often.
Instead of burying our heads in the sand, this should be a call to action, to ensure that the approximately 800000 Nigerians living in South Africa (the Nigerian Union in SA’s estimate) and all other foreigners enjoy the basic right of human security.
Our politicians should cease linking undocumented foreign migrants with crime, as this only serves to fan the flames of fear and hatred. The African Diaspora Forum and Amnesty International lambasted Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, for saying last year: “Illegal foreign nationals living in Johannesburg must be treated as criminals.” The ADF called the mayor’s comments dangerous and xenophobic.
It is heartening that Gauteng Premier David Makhura made a call in his State of the Province address for South Africans not to attack or blame foreigners for South Africa’s problems.
There is no question that the mix of high unemployment, scarce resources and increased competition for space in the informal sector is a recipe for conflict. Foreigners continue to live side by side with South Africans, but there is little social cohesion or integration.
What we need is for our government to attempt to reconcile communities, increase levels of tolerance in our society, and make xenophobia a crime.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Foreign Editor.