In what has now become a regular occurrence since South Africa gained independence, violent xenophobic attacks reared their ugly heads again this week. While there have been constant anti-immigrant attacks since 1994, the peak attacks occurred in 2008 when more than 65 people were killed, in the 2015 Durban riots and in 2017.
During these attacks, which the well-organised perpetrators allege are targeting those immigrant communities taking South African jobs and businesses and/or engaging in criminal conduct, many homes and businesses have been damaged and thousands of people displaced. Unlike the past, there was unusual collective anger in Africa this week. While most Africans have been empathetic of the frustrations that cause South Africans to hit out at their African cousins every so often, patience seems to have run out.
In Zambia, university students looted South African outfits which dot Lusaka. In Nigeria, MTN, the country’s largest mobile company had to close shop after Nigerians attacked its shops and burned masts. The South African Embassy had to be closed as threats on its staff intensified.
There have been continent-wide calls to boycott South African products and at least one Radio station in Zambia has banned playing of South African music. Kenya has been un-characteristically quiet, but if the attacks down south continue, this quiet cannot be guaranteed. Anyone who has watched the goings on in South Africa for the last 25 years should not be surprised.
Despite political independence, the country remains controlled by a minority white population and a small cabal of staggeringly wealthy blacks. In a country where majority people lack technical expertise, one would expect that at least the distribution of land or the informal sector, the equivalent of our jua kali, would absorb a significant part of the population.
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This is not so. Despite attempts by ANC to hasten land redistribution, the white minority which is 9 per cent of the population, controls roughly 75 per cent of the land only down from 85 per cent at independence. The informal sector is undeveloped and generally run by immigrants. The per capita income among the white population is 400,000 Rand against 95,000 Rand among black South Africans.
The unemployment rate among black South Africans aged between 20 and 35 is about 55 per cent compared to about 8 per cent among whites. Many South African blacks therefore feel desperate and powerless as they live and interact with the massive wealth the country exhibits with its impressive neighbourhoods, exclusive hotels, gleaming highways and humongous malls.
Right there is a recipe for disaster. To its credit, the Ramaphosa government has promised to hasten land redistribution; passing a law that will reclaim land from white farmers without the necessity of compensation. But this may be too late.
Unfortunately, the desperate blacks have wrongly identified the cause of their grief, targeting fellow poor immigrant Africans. To make matters worse, many believe the ANC government and its supporters do not mind the focus of the anger of the desperate South Africans being directed to immigrants as opposed to where it should be; inability of the ANC government to empower the majority population almost 30 years after independence. Which is why the attacks on South African capital in the rest of Africa may be the trigger that will make Ramaphosa and his team engage a faster gear in resolving the helplessness informing the xenophobia.
Many blacks in political leadership are significant equity holders in the MTNs, the Shoprites, the Multichoices and the numerous other South African enterprises that dot the African continent. An attack or boycott of those entities touches these emerging African bourgeoisie where it hurts, unlike when poor Somalis and Nigerians are being killed in the South African slums.
The negative effect on their personal balance sheets may turn out to be the best catalyst to force the ANC honchos to invest in much needed economic empowerment for the long-suffering South Africans.
- The writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya