from SAVIOUS KWINIKA in Johannesburg, South Africa
JOHANNESBURG, (CAJ News) – WITH previous elections in recent years characterised by scapegoating of foreign nationals for prevailing socioeconomic problems afflicting South Africa, fear has gripped foreign nationals ahead of preparations for watershed elections in 2019.
Politicians desperate for votes in the tense fight to win over the electorate that is bearing the brunt of economic challenges such as poverty and joblessness, have in recent polls made the most of the local citizens’ desperation such that it has become fashionable to single out foreigners for South Africa’s woes.
They are often accused of “stealing” jobs, women and business opportunities meant for their local counterparts.
According to official South African statistics, as of 2011 census, 2,2
million foreigners live in South Africa, which has an official (2011)
population of 51,8 million.
Indications are that the foreign population is a vast underestimation.
The real figure may in fact be as high as 5 million, including some three million estimated Zimbabweans).
Migrants’ rights groups reported that the vast majority of these nationals were panicking ahead of the upcoming general elections in the host country.
“We are definitely worried while getting closer to the general elections scheduled for 2019. This is because based on past experience, foreign nationals have paid with their lives during such elections,” said Marc Gbaffou, the chairman of the African Diaspora Forum (ADF) chairman.
Speaking in an interview with CAJ News, Gbaffou, who is originally from the Ivory Coast, lamented that it was common that migrants were caught up in fiery service delivery protests that sporadically affect South Africa.
“Those politicians who have no tangible arguments to convince their
electorate always take the shortcut by accusing foreign nationals. It’s a populist approach which seems to be working very well in South Africa. The idea is to make community members believe that migrants are the cause of their suffering,” Gbaffou said.
He said African migrants, mostly living in the big cities, were anxious about the upcoming elections.
“This is because of the repeated attacks on the migrants’ community in the past ten years,” Gbaffou posited.
Gbaffou thus appealed to the administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa to ensure migrants, whom he termed as a minority group, were always protected by the law enforcement agencies.
Gabriel Shumba, a human rights lawyer and Director of Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (ZEF), who is also an advocate at the High Court of South Africa, said while it was lamentable, scapegoating of foreigners for political mileage was a new phenomenon in the country.
“As non-nationals, we live with this reality daily, especially undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. We are mystified that recommendations that have been made over the years to harshly punish political deviants who prey on non-national vulnerable groups have not been implemented,” Shumba said.
He said while the Hate Crimes Bill was currently in Parliament, more stringent and harsher punishment for hate crimes, the propagation of xenophobia or racism as well as any other crimes of intolerance must meanwhile be effected.
“We hope that President Ramaphosa’s African National Congress will not only hasten the passage of the Hate Crimes Bill but also lead in terms of its implementation. We thus call upon all other political parties in SA to endorse the Bill,” he appealed.
Shumba said South Africa should take cue from East and Central African countries such as Uganda, which have shown the way in terms of tolerance.
“However, we accept that South has done much for Zimbabweans and other nationalities, and that deviant elements are inevitably to be found,” he said.
South African-based Nigerian entrepreneur, Okoro Okonkwo, said fear was also gripping his compatriots living in the Southern African country ahead of polls.
Coincidentally, Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, with a recent history of rivalry with South Africa, will also hold general elections in 2019.
“Some of us are presently living in numbers, or rent full houses as Nigerian nationals in communities to avoid being attacked individually. Living in numbers enables us to defend ourselves. However, our plea to the South African government is to dissuade politicians against inciting hate based on xenophobia,” Okonkwo appealed.
Nigeria claims over 100 of its nationals have been killed in alleged xenophobic attacks in South Africa in recent years.
Nqabutho Mabhena, Chairman of Zimbabwe Diaspora Forum, however said discrimination was not peculiar to South Africa but a global issue.
“We have seen how President Donald Trump has used it in the USA. In Western Europe, it has given rise to right wing movements and political parties,” Mabhena argued.
“South Africa cannot afford to be surrounded by poor countries. This
increases the influx of migrants, which leads to competition of local
resources leading to xenophobia attacks,” he added.
Instead of being paralysed with fear, migrants must consider joining trade unions, Mabhena recommended.
“This helps in dealing with issues as a collective.”
Mabhena conceded to the challenges of high unemployment in South Africa with migrants victims of “greedy” employers.
He disclosed Zimbabwe Diaspora Forum was accelerating efforts, in
conjunction with local branches of the ANC and other mass democratic movements, to raise awareness on issues around the welfare of migrants.
“Xenophobia attacks happen at community level hence our work with local structures,” Mabhena explained.
“This is the ideal society we seek to establish. Xenophobia attacks are not directed at professionals but in poor communities hence our social cohesion programme as focused in townships and informal settlements.”
The initiatives, Mabhena further disclosed, had been escalated to government level.
“In respect to migrants who own businesses, we are in contact with the Ministry of Small Business, with whom we have agreed to work together to ensure sharing of business skills between migrants and South Africans.”
Ahead of Africa Week commemorations in May, migrants together with locals have already coined this year’s theme as “Celebrating Madiba, past, present and future.”
Mandela advocated for an inclusive post-independence South Africa, reflected in the constitution preamble that the country “belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.”
However, renowned South African political scientist, Professor Tinyiko Maluleke , disagreed elections triggered xenophobic violence.
“The first major manifestation of so-called xenophobic attacks was in
2008. There were no elections that year. The presumption that this
phenomenon is linked to elections does not seem to have the actual basis in fact,” Maluleke said.
“When these attacks have occurred, it has not been connected to elections. Unfortunately, some politicians, especially those at the lower ranks at local community levels, may have exploited this, from time to time. One could speculate and wonder whether this issue will be made a vote-buying issue by the politicians but that is conjecture and imagination not fact.”
Maluleke said xenophobia must be located in the “difficult” colonial history of Africa.
“That colonial history is responsible, not only for the colonial borders we have come to regard as ‘God-given’. Also consider the xenophobic attacks between Ghanaians and Nigerians in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Such problems, he said, had played out in African countries such as Kenya, Rwanda and Zimbabwe.
The analyst said South Africa was no exception to the aforementioned colonial history.
“Additionally, South Africa had apartheid, which was the idea not only that black and whites should never mix but that different tribes /ethnic groups’ so constructed by the apartheid system and colonial authorities, should live apart from one another.”
Maluleke argued the apartheid regime instilled a belief among South Africans they (blacks) were “luckier and therefore better (off) than blacks in ‘the rest of Africa’ or in ‘Africa North of the Limpopo.”
He recounted the discovery of gold and diamond in the mid 19th century, resulted in the importation of cheap black labour not only from rural South Africa but from all of southern Africa.
Maluleke highlighted the problem of politicians using populist rhetoric to win votes was not peculiar to South Africa.
For example, in United States Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency, Mexicans and the Muslims that were scapegoated.
“For Mugabe (former Zimbabwean president, Robert) it was the white farmers who hoarded the land. In South Africa there are many possible electioneering scapegoats: Zuma? Mandela? Land expropriation without compensation? White monopoly capital?, ” Maluleke said.
Locally, Johannesburg Mayor, Herman Mashaba, is among politicians accused of inciting violence against migrants.
“Mashaba made the loudest noises about foreigners and drugs in the city but the ANC immediately came out against a wholesale condemnation of immigrants,” said Maluleke.
“My sense is that in South Africa, Afrophobic sentiments remain mainly a grassroots phenomenon which has become a regular method of blame whenever South Africans experience economic hardships or service delivery difficulties,” he added.
For the forthcoming elections, Maluleke urged political parties to condemn acts of xenophobia.
“More than that, they need to show actual solidarity with African immigrants, especially the victims. Politicians must not include the blame of African immigrants as part of their campaigns.”
Maluleke urged politicians to tackle economic and service delivery and thus not influence people do not look for scapegoats.
He said political leaders should “kill” the idea of “South African
“For all the talk about a rainbow nation, the African aspect of that
rainbow – people, culture, indigenous languages , history – has not been sharply pronounced,” he said.
“As we amplify the Africanness of South Africa, we shall realise how
deeply connected we are to all of southern Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. The place of Africa as the place where humanity was born – South African cradle of humanity as well as the Kenyan Rift Valley – should also be an important theme,” Maluleke said.
South African Police Service (SAPS) spokesperson, Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo would not comment on what preparedness their law enforcement agency were in the event similar attacks on foreign nationals ever occur.
In 2008, foreign nationals, mainly Ethiopians, Malawians, Mozambicans, Nigerians, Pakistans, Somalians and Zimbabweans were targeted.
About 62 foreign nationals were murdered with more than 200,000 others displaced from South African communities while property worth millions of Rands looted and destroyed in the process.
The attacks also reared its ugly head again in 2015 election where hordes of African national were murdered and injured in townships while their belongings looted or destroyed.
Just in 2017, renewed attacks were unleashed against Nigerian nationals for allegedly peddling drugs to local community.