Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

The African Union (AU) declared this year the year of Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced People. Africa has 6.3 million refugees and 14.5 million internally displaced people; this means more than a third of the world’s forcibly displaced people are in Africa.

Within Africa, South Africa is the most popular destination for immigrants. This trend has often provoked incidents of attacks on foreign nationals.

This year’s attacks on foreign nationals were distinct, coming in the year when the AU is focusing on displaced individuals and a year before South Africa assumes the Chair of the AU.

The attacks have also been distinct in the manner that some African countries have responded. South African enterprises were besieged and defaced in Nigeria and Zambia. Madagascar and Zambia cancelled soccer matches that they were supposed to play against South Africa. The spotlight has mainly been shone on the dynamic between Nigeria and South Africa, the continent’s biggest economies respectively.

Attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa are an expression of a frustrated citizenry whose hope for economic success after apartheid remains just an aspiration. An ambitious and industrious migrant population is thus perceived as a threat to prospects for economic progress. Thus, at the root of these attacks is the lack of economic transformation. The influx of foreign nationals to South Africa is heavily influenced by conflict and economic despondency in countries of origin.

Despite being a large economy, Nigeria remains a deeply crippled and crippling society. Its economic woes have been compounded by its ineffectual effort to foil violent extremism from religious fundamentalists, mainly based in the north of the country.

At the World Economic Forum, Lesetja Kganyago, the governor of South Africa’s Reserve Bank, said that it is South Africa and Nigeria’s paltry economic growth that paint a bleak picture for Africa because smaller economies are showing signs of progress and growth.

Petty competition and tit for tat reprisals based on xenophobic sentiment will further poison what is already a bleak dynamic for the two countries, and Africa at large.

The implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement promotes intra-African synergy wherein travel across African borders will be a main factor.

From this background migration is inexorable and, if done properly, could add towards developing the African continent. It is better, though, for conditions within African countries to attain a level that provides requisite comforts for citizens. Such a scenario cannot be realistically imagined without impetus and leadership roles from Pretoria and Abuja.

Supporting each other could prove beneficial for the countries and Africa.

As long as the basics of economic percolation, good governance and social services are not secured, attacks on foreign nationals will continue, especially in South Africa where citizens are not getting auspicious opportunities; in such circumstances, migrants further complicate an already fraught situation.

* Monyae is the director of the Centre for Africa - China Studies at the University of Johannesburg. He writes from Como, Italy, reviewing the forthcoming book The Asian Aspiration: How Africa can be the next Asia, and why it should not, by Greg Mills and Emily van der Merwe at The Brenthurst Foundation.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.