Xenophobic attacks in South Africa are a symptom of bigger problems

The ugly cycle of xenophobic attacks on African immigrants in South Africa visited us again this week. Beginning Sunday and targeting foreign-owned enterprises, crowds of South Africans looted shops and set vehicles on fire. At least ten people have been killed. Most of the immigrants affected were Nigerian, a fact that prompted retaliatory attacks against South African businesses in Nigeria.

The attacks betray a couple of things about Africa, and South Africa in particular. First, the continent was painfully reminded of how little societies the world over value African lives – even in Africa. As many observers were quick to point out, Africans are not the only immigrants in South Africa and comprise a miniscule share of the South African population. But it is Africans that get targeted. These attacks should be seen for what they are: a sick manifestation of internalised anti-blackness among South Africans. Sadly, the anti-black sentiments exhibited by South Africans extends north of the Limpopo. Throughout Africa, our leaders treat us like trash. Like South Africa’s xenophobic hooligans, they too betray their internalised anti-blackness through theft of public resources, disregard for the crushing levels of poverty afflicting their people, and persistent violence and brutality. They have no shame.

Second, it is important to admit that South Africa’s anti-blackness xenophobia is a symptom of endemic unemployment, especially among the youth. This fact is compounded by the fact that unlike many African countries, South Africa lacks a robust informal sector that can cushion the unemployed youth. The country is also 60 per cent urban and, due to the legacy of skewed land ownership under racist apartheid rule, subsistence agriculture is not an option for many. The consequences of these economic realities and attendant social ills have been grim. The country has the highest rates of crime and violence in Africa. Over 20,000 people are murdered annually, almost approaching the body count in war zones. For perspective, in 2018 Kenya recorded 1,065 murders. South Africa has a population of 57 million, compared to 50 million in Kenya. These numbers are a stinging indictment of the country’s black leadership since 1994. They have failed on account of their corruption and singular focus on self-enrichment.

It is important to note that mass youth unemployment is an African phenomenon. As the unfortunate events unfolded in South Africa this week, crowds in Nigeria exploited the situation to attack South African business. This, too, was a symptom of the economic hardships facing African youths, from Senegal, to Mozambique, Namibia to Sudan.

As fate would have it, the xenophobic attacks were the opening act for the World Economic Forum on Africa in South Africa. At the event, African leaders gathered to talk about economic development amid the “fourth industrial revolution.” The contrast between the pageantry of the summit and images of the charred remains of shops and cars in the streets of Johannesburg was jarring. African leaders love summitry. Few ever work to give their populations the opportunities for economic empowerment.

Poverty will not magically varnish from Africa’s shores. Poverty eradication requires deliberate investments in the structural transformation of societies. Unfortunately, this is not African leaders’ forte. They do not know who they are, or what they are about as leaders. They are the most complacent elites in the world.

- The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University