Johannesburg - Xenophobia has a long and tumultuous history. During the apartheid era, foreigners from neighbouring African states were also regularly subjected to discrimination and violence, made possible by the institutionalised racism of the time.
After 1994, incidents of xenophobia continued to occur with disconcerting frequency, culminating in the wave of xenophobic violence that engulfed the country in May 2008, resulting in the deaths of 62 people and causing thousands to flee.
The events of recent months are a worrying indication that this tension is beginning to reignite, shown by a spike in the reported killings of foreign spaza shop owners in informal settlements in Cape Town and Joburg.
Increasing xenophobic violence is causing many foreigners to consider fleeing South Africa and returning to countries where they face widespread poverty and political persecution.
Two Pakistani men, who survived a targeted shooting in March, allegedly caused by business rivalry, have subsequently fled the country, saying they were simply “too scared to stay”.
In addition, the governments of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi have highlighted plans to repatriate thousands of their citizens, who are seeking to return home amid rising concerns for their personal safety.
To make matters worse, there appears to be an increasing trajectory towards the institutionalisation of xenophobia, the Lindela Repatriation Centre being a prime example. The barbaric public torture and humiliation of a Mozambican taxi driver by police officers and the hosing down of refugees, including children, outside a home affairs centre in Cape Town last month further highlight this trend.
Such incidents show that the abuse of refugees isn’t confined to the streets of informal settlements, but is being orchestrated by prominent state organs in the heart of our cities. Instead of being vocal in its condemnation of xenophobic violence, the government, through its recent actions, appears to actively condone it. Attributing foreigners’ success as entrepreneurs to their ability to circumvent regulations, unlike locals, the government seems to implicate itself for its failure to make small businesses flourish.
The government’s failure to protect the rights of all people and exercise its constitutional duties is a gross dereliction of duty. It is obliged by law to protect everyone’s inherent dignity and ensure that people are not treated or punished “in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way”.
A report by the Human Sciences Research Council on violence and xenophobia in South Africa highlighted relative deprivation – which leads to intense competition for jobs, commodities and housing – as a root cause behind xenophobic violence in the country. Foreigners are often made the scapegoats for the endemic social problems of unemployment, crime and poverty, wrongly creating the perception that foreigners are the cause of the country’s ills and entrenching this in the psyche of the unemployed.
Wedded to this perception is the unsubstantiated claim that foreigners are responsible for the crime epidemic, an argument often used to justify police brutality towards them. Xenophobic violence thus appears to be borne out of the negative stereotyping of foreigners and an inaccurate and unfavourable view, which the government has failed to quash.
But such perceptions are far from representative. Many migrants possess a strong degree of self-reliance and through their entrepreneurial ventures contribute substantially to the economic upliftment of the deprived informal settlements which they inhabit.
Rather than “taking” the jobs of local people, many migrants are contributing to increased economic vibrancy and job creation. This is in stark contrast to the over-reliance of South Africans on the government for handouts, largely due to their strong sense of entitlement and dependence. Foreigners have no such desire and their strong sense of self-reliance is a matter of survival.
Rather than demonising migrants, South Africans need to embrace their entrepreneurial spirit and learn from their determination to overcome economic deprivation.
* Matthew Thomas is a researcher for the Impumelelo Social Innovations Centre.