A new wave of attacks targeting black African nationals in South Africa is disturbing. It is particularly disconcerting given that it follows comments by the leader, President Cyril Ramaphosa. Furthermore, this is not a new phenomenon. It has happened before, with devastating results on affected community. The president knew the consequences of his words but even if it were argued that he didn’t, he ought to have known better but was reckless and disregarded the consequences.
The driving force behind the attacks have been referred to as xenophobia, but a critical examination reveals that this is only a part of the story. The myriad of factors motivating these attacks are far more insidious and cannot simply be captured by the label of xenophobia alone. History reminds us that whenever a group of people has been identified for exclusion from the community, it is most likely that they are being made scapegoats for elite failure and the consequences are often devastating.
Examples in the history of humankind abound – the Jewish Holocaust authored by Hitler, the Bosnian Genocide targeting Bosnian Muslims, the Rwandan Genocide and Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe. It is reckless, dangerous and irresponsible to make statements that are likely to stoke up hatred and violence particularly where old fault-lines are already known to exist.
It is important to examine the latest wave which I have deliberately couched as attacks against poor black Africans to supply nuance to the oft-preferred label xenophobia, which I do not think accurately captures the phenomenon.
But first, it is important to note that the latest wave is happening within a global context in which a strand of parochial nationalism has become prominent. This parochial nationalism is being driven by populist demagogues on the older democracies including the US and the UK and mostly in continental Europe, by the Far Right. It manifests in different forms including isolationism, withdrawal from multilateralism, exclusionary policies, largely targeted at immigrants, hate-filled rhetoric, physical violence, and generally xenophobic attitudes and practices.
There appears to be a generally held view that governments’ failure to handle migration and the pressures of globalisation have caused a gradual rise in resentment in the advanced nations, which has in turn been exploited by populist demagogues. When the South African president raises the immigration issue, he is behaving no more or less differently from his counterparts in the West. After all, there is also a sense of exceptionalism south of the Limpopo, which “others” and excludes the rest of the continent. In this regard, lessons have been learnt from its northern neighbour, Zimbabwe, which for a long time was also under the grip of a similar sense of exceptionalism until it was violently woken from this slumber.
The “othering” of Black Africans is of course ahistorical. It ignores the historical links, many of them anchored in blood of the liberation struggles. Zimbabwe could not have won its independence without the cousins from Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania. Many more played a part: Nigeria, Egypt and Algeria within the continent. Members of the ANC, PAC and other liberation groups found a home in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania and other countries as they fought for freedom from apartheid.
I was doing Grade 7 in 1987 when a bomb blast killed and injured at a shopping centre in the suburb of Avondale. The targets were South African citizens, members of the ANC and those supporting them. Zimbabweans died too but it was not the only bomb blast. We had welcomed our South African cousins because there was a clear recognition that their struggle was also our struggle. It was all in the spirit that the independence of Black Africa was not complete until every nation was free from colonial oppression. “Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa,” Kwame Nkrumah had said in his famous speech on the occasion of Ghana’s independence in 1957.
So the unseemly attacks against Black Africans go against the very foundations upon which African liberation is built. How does a brother wield a machete against the neck of a brother who just yesterday, gave him sanctuary?
However, there should be no haste to condemn South Africans because in truth, what is happening there, in so far as the exclusion of Black Africans, is not without precedent on the continent. Appreciating this might help shed some light into the principal actors behind such experiences and the motivations behind them. Oft-times, the poor people, both the aggressors and the attacked are victims of political elites playing their hideous political games.
In 1969, Ghana the first Black African country to gain independence, and had become a beacon of hope passed the Aliens Compliance Order under which many immigrants were expelled from the country. The majority affected were Nigerians. In 1983, Nigeria returned the favour, with millions expelled under an executive order by the then leader, Shehu Shagari. The majority affected were Ghanaians. It was from this historic moment that the infamous cliché “Ghana Must Go” emerged. Both episodes involved violence which caused loss of property, livelihoods and lives.
Across the continent, in Uganda, the tyrant Idi Amin forcibly expelled Ugandans of Asian origin. Hundreds of thousands left with little or nothing, their investments grabbed by the Amin regime and cronies. In Zimbabwe, many years later, Robert Mugabe infamously mocked the “totemless ones” a reference to urban dwellers in high-density areas like Mbare and Highfields, a significant number of whom trace their ancestral roots to Malawi and Zambia. They or their forebears came to the then Rhodesia seeking employment.
These are merely a snippet of the phenomenon where foreigners or persons designated as foreigners have been targeted in different parts of the continent. This puts the events in South Africa in some historical context. Frantz Fanon had already prepared us for this phenomenon when he presented his robust critique of the post-independence state in his classic work, The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon articulated the pitfalls of the new states and gave some insight into how elites in these countries had already started to behave soon after taking over from the colonial authorities.
He identified a group of elites, which he described as an “underdeveloped bourgeoisie” whose immediate goal was to replace the former colonial masters. The strategy of this elite was to compete with and remove the European masters. However, according to Fanon, there was another battle at at the level below the elites and the Europeans. It was a battle between the locals who were traders and artisans and fellow Africans. “Whereas the national bourgeoisie competes with the Europeans, the artisans and traders pick fights with Africans of other nationalities,” wrote Fanon in Chapter 3 of The Wretched of the Earth.
In his articulation of the problem, Fanon gave examples of the Ivory Coast, where he wrote, “outright race riots were directed against Damomeans and Upper Voltans who controlled much of the business sector ...” The Ivorians were targeting foreign nationals who were dominating the commercial sector of the country. This, explains Fanon, was because “we have switched from nationalism to ultranationalism, chauvinism and racism”.
Fanon goes on to describe what happens in these new states, much of which has echoes in what is currently happening in South Africa and has happened in other countries already mentioned. “There is a general call for these foreigners to leave, their shops are burned, their market booths torn down and some are lynched; consequently the Ivorian government orders them to leave, thereby satisfying the demands of the nationals”.
Fanon was writing of events in the early sixties, and in relation to the Ivory Coast, but he might as well have been writing about South Africa in 2019 or Nigeria in 1983. It might be a new millennium but little has changed. It is only that these days, words like xenophobia have become more commonplace, used to describe situations where there’s apparent hatred of foreigners.
However, as I have already stated, while xenophobia often manifests in violence against foreigners perpetrated by the local people, a critical examination of this phenomenon shows that it is the political elites who are often the primary instigators and drivers. They do so by exploiting the sensitive fault-lines between the locals and foreigners. The reasons why political elites do this are varied but chief among them is an effort to manufacture excuses for their own failure and inability to deliver public goods to their citizens.
In effect, foreigners become easy scapegoats, blamed for ills of society when the government should be taking responsibility. Scapegoating enables failing governments to shift the blame onto others and to shift focus from their inadequacies. As we shall see, because the myth of nationhood is powerful, consuming and intoxicating, it blurs public judgment, leading otherwise rational men and women to commit the most atrocious acts known to humankind.
The word scapegoat itself is revealing and deserves some attention. Its origins can be traced back to the Bible where in Leviticus, the sins of the nation are placed upon a goat which is promptly sent away into the wilderness. Interestingly this practice is also known in traditional Karanga culture: a goat or chicken can also be sent away into the wilderness, carrying the curse or sins. “They are known as “mbudzi/Huku dzekurasirwa (cursed goats/chickens)”. They cannot be taken back or domesticated the legend being that whoever takes them also adopts their curse.
In all cases, they are called scapegoats because despite their innocence, they are nonetheless made to carry the sins/curse of society. More critically, they are unable to offer resistance to being burdened with the sins/curse of society.
It is easy to see why it is argued that in most cases, foreign immigrants are treated as scapegoats. They are scapegoats in the dispute between the political elites who control governmental power and the local population which may be dissatisfied with the elites’ Mia-exercise of governmental power.
This is because foreign immigrants are invariably blamed for the ills of society. Political elites blame them for, among other things, clogging public services while the locals blame them for allegedly taking their jobs.
For the political elites in control of the government, blaming foreigners is a useful distraction from their failures. Instead of the locals focusing on their political leaders and their shortcomings, their anger is directed at foreigners. The government sets its disgruntled local population against defenceless foreign immigrants, creating an outlet for public anger. More anger poured in the direction of foreigners relieves pressure off the political elites, who present themselves as saviours representing the interests of citizens.
For the locals, foreign immigrants are also an easy target because unlike the government, they are unlikely to offer any resistance. If the locals demonstrate against their government over its failings, the government summons the night of the state machinery to crush them. However, the locals can target foreign immigrants and attack them without facing the same levels of response. Being in unfamiliar territory, foreign immigrants are vulnerable and easily forced into submission.
Another aspect of this politics of exclusion is that in most cases, the xenophobia is selective on the basis of class, race and place of origin. Violent attacks motivated by xenophobia are largely situated in the poorer sites compared to the affluent suburbs. You are more likely to witness xenophobic attacks in Alexandria than in Sandton. This is not necessarily because there are more foreigners in Alexandria than in Sandton. In fact, foreign immigrants in white collar jobs earn far more and enjoy a higher standard of living than their counterparts in the poorer areas. If the notion that foreigners take locals jobs were true, one might expect more attacks in affluent sections than in poorer areas.
In addition, there are more likely to be xenophobic attacks against black African immigrants than other racial categories. This is not necessarily because there are more Black African immigrants than other racial groups. What explains the different attitude and treatment of foreign immigrants along class, race and continent of origin? The scapegoat theory may also be helpful.
Recall that a scapegoat is chosen because it is weak and cannot offer resistance? The affluent foreigners occupy sites of stronger resistance. Their homes and offices are fortified not just by the private means but also by the state, which extends its big hand in the name of protecting the national economy. This affluent foreigners are not easy enough to categorise as scapegoats. The poor foreign immigrants on the other hand are fair game. Their “otherness” is complete when they are branded as “illegals” a label that is harder to stick to the affluent ones.
All this suggests that upon critical examination, it is not the “foreignness” of immigrants that ultimately explains these xenophobic attitudes and attacks. After all, when a xenophobic attack happens it is unlikely that perpetrators first ask for a work and residence permit. There is far more to it and government’s failure to tackle poverty and underdevelopment among its citizens is critical. Xenophobia must also be qualified not merely as a hatred for foreigners but hatred directed at poorer and vulnerable foreigners. In the case of South Africa one may also add “vulnerable Black African foreigners”.
So yet again, we observe the elites pitting the poor and against the poor. We see the elites spouting rhetoric that casts them as heroes who are ridding the country of illegal immigrants, as the farmer ridding the field of pests. There is no critical examination at political rallies. It’s the simplistic but alluring explanation which appeals to many who are not well-positioned to exercise critical examination of issues.
Why does it make sense to them when it sounds so irrational? It makes sense to them because the myth of nationhood is one of the most powerful myths generated by humankind. While the myth of nationhood brings millions of people together to work for a common purpose, it is, rather paradoxically, also exclusionary in that it excludes all those considered to be outside of the “nation”. Few myths are more attractive than the idea of the nation. It is for those who belong, a place of refuge and comfort when all else is lost.
A political leader who defends nationhood is likely to command a huge amount of favour among nationals. It is not surprising that rhetoric against foreigners is usually at its highest and loudest during election campaigns. It was a key issue during the 2016 presidential election in the US and also a key matter in the Brexit Referendum the same year. It’s easy to see while President Ramaphosa thought it wise to ratchet up the pressure against illegal foreign immigrants - it’s election season in South Africa.
The oddity is that while he pontificates over and foments xenophobia among the poor, President Ramaphosa has steadfastly refused to acknowledge the causes of the flood of immigrants from Zimbabwe. Like his predecessors, he has taken a partial view of the crisis in Zimbabwe, failing to appreciate the root causes and what needs to be done to resolve it. There is a complete refusal to acknowledge that the immigration problem from Zimbabwe is a result of bad governance, bad elections which have resulted in lack of legitimacy and international isolation.
It is easy to condemn the so-called illegal immigrants, but far more important to address the causes of their migration. Regrettably, President Ramaphosa has so far failed to appreciate this circumstance, preferring the narrow, self-serving perspective that the exclusive cause of Zimbabwe’s problems is sanctions. If President Ramaphosa is serious about solving the migration problem, then he has to be serious about assisting his northern neighbours find a political solution to their political challenge. This will not happen by the see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil approach towards the ZANU PF regime.
Morgan Tsvangirai used to say Zimbabwe is not a foreign policy issue for South Africa, but a domestic issue. By this he meant the millions who have trekked across the Limpopo over the years and have become an issue for South Africa are because of the poor governance in Zimbabwe. Therefore when South Africa deals with Zimbabwe or its people it is actually dealing with a domestic problem. Sadly, this message fell on deaf ears. You cannot berate the so-called illegal immigrants while nurturing the cause of their migration by molly-coddling an inept regime.
Xenophobia does not adequately explain the events in SA
Xenophobia buries the various nuances that explain the blatant and selective attacks against Black Africans
It is not merely the “foreignness” immigrants that explains why they are targeted because many more non-Black African foreigners are not subjected to similar treatment
The phenomenon of attacks on Black Africans has to be nuanced because the majority of victims are poor and their attackers are also poor, whereas the instigators are wealthy elites
Foreigners are classic scapegoats – the ills of society are heaped upon them principally because they cannot resist and fight back – which is why the majority of victims are poor Black Africans of little means
Political elites must take responsibility, first for failing to deliver public goods to the citizens and second for trying to divert attention and responsibility by nominating scapegoats