Xenophobia in South Africa is not new, and its forms transcend the apartheid era and the democratic dispensation. This article will focus on what xenophobia means in South Africa, its history in South Africa, the causes of xenophobia and the current measures established to address xenophobia both in South Africa and Nigeria.
What is Xenophobia?
Xenophobia has multi meanings, and it manifests itself in various ways. According to Wamundiya (2019), xenophobia is violence and hatred perpetrated towards foreigners. The United Nations Commissioner for Human rights (UNCHR) (2018) comprehensively defines xenophobia as signs of intense hatred or dislike against strangers, foreign nationals, a particular ethnic group, a specific religious or linguistically different community.
The feelings of extreme dislike are based on race, colour, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and nationality. In South Africa, xenophobia is mostly perpetuated towards other black foreign nationals by black South Africans. Xenophobia is displayed through instigating fear, violence, discrimination and inciting others to hate victims. The victims of xenophobia are usually a minority group. And the most affected victims are women and children.
History of Xenophobia in South Africa
Since the dawn of South African democracy in the early 1990s, both international and regional foreign nationals were attracted to the country in pursuit of better political and socio-economic opportunities. The integration of foreign national has also been problematic. Foreign nationals were often viewed negatively. From 1994 to 2000, xenophobic attacks were targeted at Mozambicans, Senegalese and Malawians. In the past, these attacks took place in townships and rural areas. Xenophobic South Africans burned down some of these foreign African immigrants’ homes, some of them were killed, and others were displaced.
From 2000 until 2019, xenophobic attacks were extended to Zimbabweans, Congolese, Angolans, Somalis, Pakistanis and Nigerians. In recent times, xenophobia took place in townships and city centres, where foreign nationals owned homes and shops were looted and destroyed. The reports about the exact number of Nigerian who are victims of xenophobia is not fully known as some cases remain unreported. What is known is, in the year 2000, two Nigerians were shot and killed in the Cape Flats in Cape Town. In 2019 amid xenophobic violence, a prominent Nigerian woman was strangled to death in her hotel room at Emperor Palace in Johannesburg. In the same year, another Nigerian man was assaulted by the South African Police (SAPS), and the video went viral on social and mainstream media.
Causes of Xenophobia in South Africa
Various causes were developed over the years by researchers to explain xenophobia, particularly in South Africa. These include:
- Political causes
Government officials, political officials and traditional rulers have been primarily blamed for inciting xenophobia through their comments. Most of the officials claim the foreign nationals are a burden to their society, and therefore they must be removed before they cause further damage. Prominent political figures were cited echoing these sentiments in their speech, for example, Cyril Ramaphosa during his presidential election campaign speech in 2019; King Zwelithini of KwaZulu Natal in 2015; the former Mayor of Johannesburg Herman Mashaba and the Gauteng Premier David Makhura in their press statements in 2019.
It is argued that this type of xenophobic thinking has been institutionalised with behaviours, policies and practices that consolidate foreigners’ deliberate exclusion. The exclusion of foreigners is seen in policymaking, practices, civil society participation, and legislation.
As a result, the lack of a clear-cut political stance regarding foreigners affects communities’ cohesion towards xenophobia. Recent studies suggest that xenophobia is fueled by a political leader’s competition for power, leading to violence in communities. Researchers say that ineffective justice systems lead to a culture of vigilantism and violence among institutions and individuals.
- Economic causes
The main economic drivers behind xenophobia were employment problems. Some companies engaged in unfair and exploitative practices to evade taxes and labour regulations. Such companies often hired illegal immigrants to work under repressive conditions because they were cheap labour. Foreign nationals coming from war-torn, politically and economically unstable countries accepted such job offers.
Some companies hire foreign nationals because they view black South Africans as lazy or too selective regarding a job, working conditions, and payments. Given these views, South African ended up harbouring feelings of hatred for foreign nationals because they felt that foreigners were taking up their job opportunities, increasing poverty and facilitating further repression by accepting lower wages and poor working conditions.
- Social cause
The leading social causes of xenophobia are greed, selfishness, the need to be superior, tribalism and biased views against foreign nationals. The general assumption was foreigners were benefiting from South African resources to the detriment of its citizens. South Africans believed that foreigners were overwhelming service delivery systems such as health and education, such that they could not function properly. Interestingly, this scapegoat reason was used to mask the government’s failure to provide adequate resources and disguise rampant corruption within the government.
There are South African tribalists who sought to maintain their hegemony by sustaining biased beliefs and sparking hatred. A common belief among South Africans is that Nigerians are involved in illegal activities such as stealing, fraud, human trafficking, drug dealing and selling pirated stuff. The absence of established local community efforts to integrate foreigners, and nonexisting community conflict resolution mechanisms, further exacerbate the situation. Besides, foreign nationals are viewed as diluting the South African culture through intermarriages.
Measures Against Xenophobia in South Africa And Nigeria
This section focuses on the measures that Nigeria and South Africa took to address xenophobia in South Africa.
When xenophobia happens, it gives birth to bitterness and revenge. During the 2019 xenophobic attacks, Nigerians retaliated by attacking South African owned businesses namely MTN, PEP and Shoprite. Both government officials and celebrities publicly denounced the xenophobic attacks on social and electronic media through popular Twitter campaigns like #SayNotoXenophobia. Some celebrities took a step further by cancelling their attendance at prominent festivals and award shows held in South Africa. The Nigerian government also declared travel cautions to Nigerians who intended to visit South Africa during that time.
To address xenophobia in South Africa, several proposals were tabled, these included:
- Repatriation of Nigerians living in South Africa
- Seeking legal redress for Nigerian xenophobia victims through the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Here South Africa was supposed to pay compensation.
- Taking over South African business through government intervention
- Deployment of the Nigerian police to help the South African Police Service (SAPS) reduce xenophobic attacks.
Out of the above stated proposals to curtail xenophobic attacks in South Africa, the following measures were implemented:
- Repatriation of Nigerians, and the
- Establishment of the Early Warning Systems.
President Buhari visited South Africa to discuss trade deals and discuss ways to prevent further xenophobic violence against Nigerians. During the meeting between President Buhari and President Cyril Ramaphosa, both countries would establish Early Warning Systems. Later, the Nigerian government evacuated about 640 Nigerians from South Africa. Upon return to Nigeria, some of the returnees were given sim cards with airtime worth 40 00 Naira, 9GB data that was valid for 2 months and a small loan to start a small business. Other returnees were given 20 000 Naira and opportunities to gain new skills at the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (LSETF). The flight repatriation was initiated and singlehandedly processed by Mr Allen Onyema’s Air Peace airline, who was later given a national award for his nationalistic spirit.
As the 2019 xenophobic attacks escalated in South Africa, they attracted both regional and international attention. The South African government was faced with a two-pronged problem. Firstly, how to contain xenophobic violence within South African and secondly,y how to reduce growing regional antagonism. Its first measure to address xenophobia was to send a special envoy to Nigeria under the auspices of Jeff Radebe with an apology letter. Thereafter the South African government sent repeated messages through mainstream media asking South African to stop xenophobia.
The South African government also launched the National Action Plan to combat xenophobia. However, this was a window dressing policy whose loopholes were evident. Critics argue that the National Action Plan lacked application; it did not hold xenophobia perpetrators accountable for the loss of lives and property damage. Secondly, it did not hold political leaders accountable for their xenophobic statements in their public speeches. During its bilateral arrangement with Nigeria, the South African government also agreed to set up early warning systems.
Challenges of resolving xenophobia in South Africa
The UNCHR observed that it is difficult to resolve xenophobia where there is no accountability of perpetrators, and there is distrust in the justice system. From the South African side, those who perpetrate and those who incite xenophobia are largely not held accountable. In a few instances, when they are arrested, it only for a short time and they are charged for minor offences. The lack of accountability creates distrust for the justice system, especially for victims, as they not prompted to report xenophobic cases. Law enforcement agencies illtreat those that manage to report. Therefore, the number of reported xenophobic cases remains low. It is difficult to develop long-term surveillance systems from the Nigerian side and evaluate xenophobic cases’ recurrence, especially if xenophobic cases are under-reported.
In a nutshell, this article examined the meaning of xenophobia, its history in South Africa, its main causes and the current measures that the two governments established to address xenophobia both in South Africa and Nigeria. It is also evident that xenophobia will continue to be an ongoing problem if issues surrounding accountability and law enforcement are not addressed.