The past two weeks have seen a resurgence in xenophobic violence in South Africa. Many have taken to the streets in Pretoria and Johannesburg in order to protest and loot shops which were thought to be owned by foreign nationals. The events have led to at least 12 deaths and over 600 arrests as police struggled to contain the violence, in addition to creating diplomatic tensions between South Africa and Nigeria as South Africa closed its embassies in Lagos and Abuja.
According to South Africa’s News24, some protesters told reporters that they wanted foreigners to leave the area because they were taking jobs and selling drugs. Flyers have also circulated with statements such as: “Enough is enough, on selling of drugs, on property theft, and on our work being taken by foreign nationals,” and “South Africa for South Africans. This is not xenophobia but the truth.” Despite this kind of inflammatory rhetoric, some protesters are claiming that they just want to bring government attention to the worsening social and economic conditions in the country. “Me being angry, I think no one is happy about seeing a South African person smoking drugs, sleeping under a bridge, not working,” said Zweli Ndaba, chair of a small activist group called the Sisonke People’s Forum.
However, the disproportionate blaming of foreign nationals for poor social and economic conditions is obvious. Foreign nationals make up a mere 3.6 million of the 50 million people in South Africa – which is much less than 15% of the total population. In a country with 29% general unemployment and 55% youth unemployment, it is nonsensical to blame foreign nationals – who will generally fill lower-skilled positions – for the negative employment outcomes. One Oxford University scholar, Raphael Chaskalson, even proved this by examining the effect of immigration on employment in South Africa. He found that the effect of immigration on employment was statistically insignificant and, if anything, that immigrants probably create a small number of jobs for South Africans rather than take them away.
If this is true, then why are so many social protests grounded in xenophobia? The answer to this lies heavily in consecutive governments’ inaction which has failed to protect foreign nationals from ongoing abuse and violence.
After these recent waves of attacks, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa attempted to remedy the situation, saying: “Over the past few days, our country has been deeply traumatized by acts of violence and criminality directed against foreign nationals and our own citizens… there can be no excuse for the attacks on the homes and businesses of foreign nationals, just as there can be no excuse for xenophobia or any other form of intolerance.” Despite Ramaphosa speaking out against the violence, it is his own government which is failing to keep all citizens free of violence and punish those who are perpetuating it.
Turning to the recent past, a wave of attacks in 2008 began in Johannesburg and spread to several other main centres, where houses and shops owned by foreign nationals were burned and looted. These events killed at least 60, and are thought to have displaced more than 100,000 people. Several smaller but significant events have occurred regularly since, in correlation with rising unemployment rates and declining per-capita GDP. Throughout all this violence, however, it is difficult to find cases of people actually being prosecuted or convicted. Police have often closed cases in brutal murders, citing a lack of witnesses or other evidence. Compounding the lack of punishments handed out over xenophobic violence, politicians and other public officials have continued to make inflammatory comments without reprise.
Clearly, South Africa today does not have the institutional structures to combat xenophobia, nor does it have a government which is doing all it can to protect the lives of those facing it. The only significant recent development in combating xenophobia is in the form of a five-year National Action Plan announced in March. While the plan “calls for commitment by all South Africans to values and behaviour that will break with our hurtful and damaging past and that will keep our moral compass trained on our path of renewal and growth,” (according to the Cabinet document outlining the plan’s purpose), there is no substance in the plan to actually punish xenophobic actors.
What, if anything, will be the punishment for the hundreds arrested in the recent protests? What about politicians who push the blame for social issues onto immigrants? These questions need strong answers, otherwise it should be no surprise to see more attacks which could take the lives of innocent people. While many have welcomed the National Action Plan, positive words alone cannot solve the xenophobic violence we are seeing.
Rebuilding and remoulding a divided society like South Africa will certainly not happen overnight. Right now, calling on Ramaphosa’s government to expand and develop the plan to be more effective should be the focus for global actors.