If we are to wage war as a country against the scourge of xenophobia, first we need to acknowledge that it even exists, says the writer. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)
If we are to wage war as a country against the scourge of xenophobia, first we need to acknowledge that it even exists, says the writer. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)

What is driving xenophobic violence in South Africa?

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Sep 6, 2019

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There is a narrative in the country that there is no conflict between South Africans and foreign nationals from Africa. On the ground is another reality, where the horrific spate of xenophobic violence of the past week targeted foreign nationals from the continent.

It was specifically the shacks of Zimbabweans in Marabastad that were torched, the auto repair shops of Nigerians in Jeppestown that were burnt to smithereens, and the trucks of Zambian truck drivers that were blocked from moving, and the drivers’ lives threatened.

It is reminiscent of the recent stabbings of Malawians in Diepsloot and Mamelodi because of their accents, and the extortion of Zimbabweans in the Johannesburg and Pretoria CBD’s who are told if they don’t pay up they will be sent to Lindela. 

But what was particularly ironic about the outbreak of violence this week is that it happened on the eve of the Africa World Economic Forum in Cape Town, where South Africa was meant to showcase our commitment to greater integration and trade with the rest of the continent, and market our country as a premier investment destination. 

This was the moment to herald the promise of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, and position South Africa as a gateway to the continent - a potential manufacturing hub that will export value added goods to the rest of Africa. This week’s nightmare not only undermined the president’s investment drive, but threatened the stability of the country in areas where tensions are already at boiling point. 

There is something about the pattern of violence in this week’s xenophobic attacks against African nationals that seems far more organised and orchestrated than previous outbreaks, and we need to ask the questions why and who.

How was it that looting and burning of foreign owned shops and homes broke out in so many unrelated locations in the space of 48 hours? Jeppestown, Rosettenville, Germiston, Tembisa, Turfontein, Boksburg, Melvern, Marabastad, Alex, and even in KZN all within a matter of hours or simultaneously. 

Could this really have been a spontaneous explosion of criminality and prejudice against African nationals who are being blamed for poverty, lack of jobs and social inequality in the country, or is there something more going on?

As it turns out, the police were in fact armed with intelligence about what was about to happen, although it is unclear whether it was actionable intelligence. The African Diaspora Forum - the umbrella body of the largest group of migrant traders - claims that it warned the police of impending attacks.

How much do we know about the three organisations that allegedly motivated attacks against foreign nationals? The All Truck Drivers Foundation, Respect SA, and Sisonke Peoples Forum make no secret of their agenda against foreign nationals, but we don’t know who funds these organisations and what links they have. 

The African Centre for Migration which maps xenophobic violence through their online site Xenowatch puts the vast majority of recent incidents around the Johannesburg area at 301, in KZN 77, in the vicinity of Port Elizabeth 31, and in Cape Town 111.

If we are to wage war as a country against the scourge of xenophobia, first we need to acknowledge that it even exists, we then need to officially categorize certain violent crimes as being xenophobic violence, (currently the police have no such reporting category for statistical purposes), map where it is occuring, and with what frequency. Once we have a more accurate picture we can develop strategies on how to counter it.

But beyond determining information on the hotspots, we need to know if there are other forces at play that are using an already existing volatile situation to undermine the Government’s economic agenda, and our standing on the continent ahead of South Africa taking up the Chair of the African Union next year.

Who has the most to gain from such instability? There is a growing body of analysis that is focusing on the weaponization of the economy, which centers on the intent to discredit governments in the eyes of their people by bringing the economy to its knees, and making a country seem ungovernable. This was tried in Egypt when Mohamed Morsi was President, it is currently being attempted in Venezuela. 

At the end of the day South Africa prides itself on being a country that pursues an independent foreign policy, supports struggles for freedom and justice, and attempts to pursue a social agenda that addresses the needs of the poor. We are a country that is straddling many divides, but attempting to create our own brand that is rooted in a struggle for social justice that was championed by former President Nelson Mandela. 

There will always be consequences for pursuing such independent policies, and if we look around us, few such independent governments have managed to withstand the test of time.

* Shannon Ebrahim is the Group Foreign Editor

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