Cartoon: Bethuel Mangena/African News Agency(ANA)
We would all like to believe former president Thabo Mbeki was right when he said, “My people are not diseased by the terrible affliction of xenophobia, what is happening are acts of criminality.”

But that same year (2008), 62 foreigners were killed, and tens of thousands displaced. Somalis were necklaced in the streets of our townships, and it took military intervention to stop the blood-letting.

In that same year, Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave was burnt alive in Ramaphosa settlement in full view of the world’s media. Five years later, another Mozambican man was tied to a police van and dragged through the streets by officers in a scene reminiscent of the US Deep South half a century ago, all because he parked his taxi on the wrong side of the road.

A spokesperson for the SAPS admitted this week, after the xenophobic attacks on Malawians in Durban, that she is unaware of any case in which a South African has been prosecuted or sentenced for xenophobic crime. The reason being that the police do not categorise crimes as being xenophobic, but merely as ordinary crimes, and make no attempt to track the prevalence of xenophobic violence.

But when crime is targeted specifically at foreigners it is surely worthy of being categorised as such so that we can get a sense as a country of how pervasive xenophobic violence is in our society.

The African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at Wits University, as well as the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, have attempted to record and develop statistics on xenophobic violence, even though this should be the purview of the state. The assessment of these NGOs is that xenophobic violence in South Africa can be clearly distinguished from common crime such as theft and assault.

According to the data gathered, most attacks occur in townships and areas surrounding hostels, where foreigners are blamed for social problems such as unemployment and crime. Anger over limited access to basic services such as water and electricity are also taken out on foreign nationals. The data also reveals that xenophobic violence tends to be brutal and includes sexual assaults.

The ACMS has set up the website Xenowatch.org which receives detailed reports of xenophobia-related incidents, and while it can map crimes, spatial data on xenophobic violence is largely non-existent.

All of this evidence of the existence of xenophobia in our country has led to calls for a change in attitudes at the grassroots level towards foreigners.

The recently launched National Action Plan Against Racial Intolerance and Xenophobia has called for greater public awareness raising among the police and local people about the reality of xenophobia. But this acknowledgment of the existence of a problem hasn’t always translated into an examination of the root causes of why so many foreign nationals from the continent are flooding to South Africa in droves, and what South Africa can do to address those drivers.

South Africans need to understand why there has been a human exodus from Malawi to our country, for example, and what precipitated that crisis. It is not, as many assume, that Malawi is a poor country and its citizens are opportunistically seeking a better life for themselves in South Africa. Few realise just what transpired in Malawi in 2013 that led to a mass exodus of its people.

In 2013, there was what was known as the Cashgate scandal in Malawi during the tenure of President Joyce Banda, where the looting of public finances by officials was to the tune of $500 million. This was a major problem for one of the poorest countries in the world, which relied on donor aid for 40% of its national budget. After Cashgate, the donors decided they had had enough and $150m in donor aid was frozen. The ability of the Malawian government to deliver services to its people was basically paralysed, particularly in the health and education sectors.

Malawian hospitals ran out of drugs, patients were dying of curable diseases such as malaria, ambulances lacked fuel, and even the police were buying fuel on credit. The police and civil servants more broadly were not getting their salaries on time, and taxes were increased which made it more difficult for people to buy basic necessities. The increase in taxes also served as a disincentive for foreign investors which had negative economic implications.

Malawi is a country where half of its citizens live below the poverty line, and 2million to 3million suffer from food insecurity. 85% of the country relies on subsistence agriculture, which means that droughts or floods seriously impact the availability and affordability of food.

In 2014, Malawi experienced serious flooding which destroyed its crops, which was followed by a devastating drought.

The government was simply not able to cope without aid, and Malawian citizens were struggling to survive - and were being punished for the wrongdoing of their leaders. Out of desperation and with their home economy in tatters, many streamed to South Africa, to the point where in 2016 the Malawian High Commissioner said her nationals were flocking to South Africa every day. Almost half of those incarcerated in Lindela Repatriation Centre during this time were Malawians.

This influx certainly put a strain on South Africa’s resources in all sectors, and as our Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi has said, the influx of these foreign nationals has placed a serious burden on our public health system.

Willing to work longer hours and for less, Malawians started to take on menial jobs, in effect taking the jobs that unemployed South Africans desperately needed to survive.

Similarly, the Zimbabwean economy has been in free fall, and with what many estimate to be 95% unemployment in the country, they have also been flooding to South Africa in order to take on whatever income generating activities they can find. Again, many have taken on jobs in the service sector that South Africans without a formal education sorely needed.

After the devastation caused by Cyclone Idai in Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique (considered by some global economists as the second-poorest country in the world), many of those nationals have already been making their way to South Africa as they have no other means to survive.

If one considers that Beira in northern Mozambique was a city of half a million people, most of whom have lost their homes, possessions and livelihood, and international donor aid is only one sixth of what it needs to be in order for these people to cope, where are they likely to move to out of pure desperation?

So the influx of foreigners into our country is only set to increase substantially given the very genuine crisis the region is gripped by.

As these foreigners enter through our porous borders and melt into our social fabric they will be competing with South Africans for jobs, services, and indeed place a heavy burden on our health system. This reality is what underlies the growing xenophobia on the ground, and the anger and frustration of locals who increasingly blame their dire economic situation on the influx of foreigners.

To effectively address the root causes of xenophobia in our own country requires us to address the poor governance, economic meltdown, conflict, and humanitarian crisis in our region and the broader continent.

This necessitates South Africa playing a much larger leadership role in Africa to address these pressing challenges.

* Shannon Ebrahim is group foreign editor of Independent Media.