The latest spate of xenophobic attacks in South Africa has understandably caused outrage all over the continent. This time around, action has accompanied the anger with Nigeria firstly recalling its Ambassador and this week making arrangement to repatriate up to 700 of its citizens. What is now most disturbing however is that the looting, arson and killings have expanded beyond Gauteng Province with two killed in Cape Town last weekend.
Of course, this is not the first time that fellow Africans have become the victims of hate crimes in post-apartheid South Africa. Yet, the intensity and the destruction involved together with the feeble police response would indicate that this is not random anger or common criminality. Instead, it looks like a culture of xenophobia that has taken root. Despite sympathy expressed by Cyril Ramaphosa, there is no concerted effort to deal with attacks on fellow Africans who stood by their brothers and offered refuge and support during the Apartheid era.
Everyone is searching for the causes of these attacks. A mixture of poverty, unemployment, together with a culture of violence that is a dangerous remnant from the apartheid period are key factors. Yet, perhaps the global fear of immigrants has reached this continent too and that is a tipping cause towards violence and hatred. What the violence does expose however is the failure by the security machinery to deal with the crime of every nature.
Julius Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters has been frank, honest and remorseful about the violence than anyone in the ANC. He says that it is easy and cheap to blame Nigerians for selling drugs and deserving punishment instead of pointing the finger at law enforcers for not addressing this crime and every crime. He asserts that the failure to find employment for the idle youth is not the mistake of Nigerians but of the ANC. Besides, the failure of ANC to address inequality is the factor that no one is addressing. Are Africans easy, visible targets for misplaced anger because the white population are secured behind steel gates and private security companies?
Put another way, xenophobia is ultimately tolerated and frequently encouraged by the political and economic elites all over the globe and South Africa is no exception. Populist leaders are promoting ‘the fear of the immigrant’ in order to get votes and retain office. It has brought Trump, Johnson, Duterte, Modi, and Bolsonaro to power. Minorities are under threat everywhere and are blamed for failures of politicians to address poverty, inclusivity, and unemployment for the general population. Any government that safeguards the rights of minorities of any description will never experience the violence that South Africa is displaying. But regimes that cannot perform in an inclusive manner will always play the racial or ethnic trump card in times of trial.
At the time of the Brexit vote in 2016, up to 56 per cent of British asked in opinion polls said that immigration and asylum were the biggest threats to the nation. Governments tolerate lies and misinformation to retain their grip on power. In the USA for example citizens polled think that 37 per cent of the population is foreign-born while in fact only 13.7 per cent are. French believe that one in three of the population is Muslim yet only one in 13 or 7.6 per cent of the population are. Most Americans believe that immigrants have come to get free benefits but in America again only 5 per cent of recently arrived are unemployed.
Yet Angela Merkel in Germany welcomed one million immigrants in a single year and withstood opposition over her brave decision. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is open to welcome more immigrants to his nation. So this culture is not found everywhere. The USA can no longer, however, claim to be the “nation of immigrants.” Yet when fear of the outsider is allowed to prevail in any nation, violence and hatred are inevitable. Bertrand Russell once said ‘collective fear stimulates the herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity towards those who are not regarded as members of the herd’. Skin colour alone does not qualify one to be accepted as part of the South African herd, however. We face challenging times mainly because of poor leadership at the top. Those who came to power by stoking fears of migrants may soon vent the same hatred on their own minorities. We all know where that might end.