Attacks on Foreigners in South Africa: Xenophobia or Afro-Asiaphobia?

The past few days have been dominated by media headlines about ‘xenophobic attacks’ on foreigners, essentially Nigerians, in South Africa. According to the police five people have died and businesses and properties worth millions of dollars destroyed since the current wave of ‘xenophobic attacks’ in the country.

Attacks on foreigners in South Africa are quite episodic and even pre-dated 1994 – the year the country was freed from Apartheid rule and became a ‘rainbow’ democracy. In fact between 1984 and the end of hostilities in Mozambique, the Bantustan homeland of Lebowa  rejected Mozambiquans that fled to the homeland – though others such as Gazankulu welcomed the refugees with support in the form of land and equipment. Not long after the end of Apartheid, and the euphoria that came with it, a Human Rights Watch Report in 1998 found that immigrants from Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique living in Alexandra townships were “physically assaulted over a period of several weeks in January 1995, as armed gangs identified suspected undocumented migrants and marched them to the police station in an attempt to ‘clean’ the township of foreigners.” The campaign, known as ‘Buyelekhaya’ (‘go back home’), blamed foreigners for crime, unemployment and sexual attacks. It is estimated that between 2000 and March 2008, at least 67 people were killed in various ‘xenophobic’ attacks against immigrants in the country. During the May 2008 attacks, 62 were people killed and several hundred others injured. There was another wave of ‘xenophobic’ attacks in 2015 which prompted a number of governments to begin repatriating their citizens. In fact a 2018 Pew Research poll found that some 62 per cent of South Africans viewed immigrants as a burden on their society. The population of foreigners in South Africa increased from about two million in 2010 to four million in 2017.

An unfortunate thing about these attacks is that they always seem to have the tacit support of top government officials. For instance in 2017 Bongai Mkongi, South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Police was quoted as saying: “You will not find South Africans in other countries dominating a city up to 80 per cent. We cannot surrender South Africa to foreign nationals.” South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, was also quoted to have said in 2018 that foreign nationals would be hounded and their businesses shut down “no matter where they come from”.  Again former President Jacob Xuma was reported to have told Black South Africans at an ANC manifesto launch years ago that “this is not Rwanda” and that we shouldn’t “think like Africans in Africa”.

How do we properly describe the episodic attacks on foreigners in South Africa – xenophobia (as it is popularly called in the media) or something else?

A starting point is to understand that in South Africa, the term ‘foreigner’ has a pejorative meaning and usually refers to African and Asian nationals.  Other foreigners, especially Whites from America and Europe, are usually seen and treated as “tourists” or “expats”.

Largely because the Whites are usually not among the targets of the attacks, some have suggested the attacks should more appropriately be called ‘Afrophobia’ (hatred of Africans).  But I feel that calling it ‘Afrophobia’ does not quite capture the full picture since nationals from Bangladesh and Pakistan are equally profiled and targeted.  Certainly in South Africa the hatred of Africans is almost as deeply ingrained as the hatred of Asians. I feel therefore that a more appropriate terminology is ‘Afro-Asiaphobia’ – since Africans and Asians are usually the targets of such attacks.

What are the causes of these attacks?

There are several causes – some are underlying factors while others are merely the trigger events. In her very important book, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (2003), Amy Chua, Professor of Law at Yale Law School, explores the ethnic conflict caused in many societies by disproportionate economic or political influence wielded by “market dominant minorities”. She noted for instance that though the Chinese Filipino community is 1% of the population of the country, it controls 60 percent of the economy, with the result being envy and bitterness on the part of the majority against the minority. Again in Indonesia, while the Chinese Indonesian community makes up only 3% of the population, it controls 70 % of the economy. Other examples of ‘market-dominant minorities’  given by Chua include overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia; Whites in Latin America and South Africa; Israeli Jews in Israel and the Middle East; Croats in the former Yugoslavia; Yoruba, Igbos, Kikuyus, Tutsis, Indians and Lebanese, among others, in Sub-Saharan Africa

For Chua, tension and conflicts are often inherent in the relationship between ‘the economic dominant minority’ and the poor majority in the context of liberal democracy. For her, when “free market democracy is pursued in the presence of a market-dominant minority, the almost invariable result is backlash” because   “overnight democracy will empower the poor, indigenous majority. What happens is that under those circumstances, democracy doesn’t do what we expect it to do – that is, reinforce markets.” In essence what we call xenophobia or Afro-Asiaphobia in South Africa, as condemnable as it may be, is actually part of the problems of globalizing the markets in an era in which liberal democracy has become triumphant.

It is generally believed that South Africa is two countries in one – the prosperous White South Africa and the poor and impoverished Black South Africa where many are not only unemployed but do not have critical skills to compete in the 21st century economy. Such groups increasingly feel displaced and marginalized in their own country by fellow Blacks whom they actually look down upon because they do not regard themselves as Africans. They like to emphasize their ‘exceptionalism’, which largely explains why a Black South African travelling to, say, Ghana will say, ‘I am travelling to Africa’. I believe the whole point of Thabo Mbeki’s ‘I am an African’ speech ( made on behalf of the African National Congress in 1996 ) was to nudge Black South Africans to accept their African identity  and to see other Africans in South Africa as ‘fellow compatriots’.

The above is not to suggest that there are not enough misdeeds from the immigrant community, particular Nigerians (essentially my Igbo brothers), that deeply offend South Africans. In particular the problem of drug trafficking and turf wars among the drug dealers, do not help the African immigrants’ cause. Though drug and allegations of other crimes and malfeasances such as prostitution and taking South African women are recurring allegations against African immigrants, especially Nigerians, they are merely trigger events.

As many Nigerians show their anger at the ‘xenophobic’ attacks on our country men and women in South Africa,  the various sociocultural groups in the country should consider extending their campaigns for ‘justice’ and ‘equity’ for their members to fighting some of the crimes and malfeasances allegedly  perpetuated by members of their ethnic group.  As I wrote in this column last week, Nigerians believe that people who operate from the other side of the moral divide have a ‘zoning’ arrangement in which the Igbos dominate drug trafficking and fake drugs, the Yoruba dominate internet fraud (Yahoo-Yahoo) and forgery (Oluwole); religious fanaticism and terrorism are ‘zoned’ to the core North, the Niger Delta leads the way in militancy while Edo State controls prostitution abroad.  There may be exaggeration here and there in these stereotypes, but Ohanaeze and the various Igbo Towns Unions in particular should find the courage to confront some of the issues concerning their members in South Africa. We can’t live in denial about that.

While we are right to strongly condemn the anti-foreign violence in South Africa, we should also bear in mind that xenophobia exists in virtually all parts of the world in different degrees and manifestations and that this has only been accentuated under the twin conditions of the globalization of markets and the triumphalism of liberal democracy:

In 1969 for instance Ghana’s Aliens Compliance Order, led to hundreds and thousands of Nigerian immigrants being forced to leave the country. Nigeria ‘retaliated’ on a much bigger scale with the Expulsion Order of 1983 (reordered in 1985) which resulted in more than 700,000 Ghanaian immigrants being expelled from Nigeria in a very short space of time, with some of their businesses inhumanely confiscated. In Nigeria the indigene-settler issue, which is not substantially different from the problem of ‘xenophobia’ elsewhere –  remains unsatisfactorily resolved, both for the ‘host communities’ and the ‘immigrants’

We certainly live in a world of contradictions: while globalization is making the world a global village, countries are resisting the ‘impurification’ of their societies by foreigners and the fear and envy of the ‘market dominant minorities’. Again while countries spend huge sums of money on globetrotting and PR to attract foreign direct investment, they end up resisting foreigners who jump to seize the economic opportunities in their countries.

.What has been lacking in the debate on ‘xenophobia’ is a realistic strategy of how, in this era of globalization of markets and liberal democracy, we can come with strategies that will allay the fears of both the immigrants and their host communities.


Twitter: @JideoforAdibe


Recent Comment (1)

  1. Yahaya Adadu, NSUK. Commenting from Ibadan. September 8, 2019 at 6:52 am

    This is an interesting piece. I think that the merchants of democracy and globalization will be watching and laughing at the same time. I guess that they Will be saying now that we have busied them with this we can proceed with the business of exploitation for the nourishing of our own democracy back at home. What else is the essence of the system export to other lands. I think Prof we just need to hit the nail on the head. Can capitalism survive without all of this?.

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