ANGER: Nigerians in South Africa protest against the violence
IN HIS first few months in office as South Africa’s new president back in 1994, the great Nelson
Mandela talked about his dream for his country, embracing the spirit of unity and the coming together of people of many different ethnic backgrounds, in a country once identified with strict racial divisions he spoke of his desire to create “a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world”.
But recent months have prompted observers to question whether that dream can still be realised.
South Africa has witnessed what many analysts call a “resurgence” of xenophobic violence in parts of Johannesburg and Pretoria, the country’s capital city, “ something which has become an unfortunate feature of life in post-apartheid South Africa.
There has been a spate of marches by groups opposed to immigration from elsewhere in Africa, protests culminating in violence and attacks on property in Pretoria and Johannesburg.
Nigerian migrants were caught up in the clashes. Zimbabwean migrants have also been attacked as the flow of migrants from there appears unceasing. Retaliatory attacks on South African interests were staged across Nigeria, a long-time ally and key market for South African businesses.
Residents claim that migrants drive taxis and run shops which undercut local businesses. They also claim that drug houses and sex work are rife in their communities, and are allegedly run by Nigerians. The attacks against Nigerians prompted the country’s former president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo last week to controversially condemn the violence, which he blamed on the development of the ‘laxity and insincerity’ of the South African government.
He went on to describe it as a ‘betrayal’ of the struggle for the emancipation of the country against the apartheid regime. He told Nigeria’s Vanguardnewspaper: “The leaders ought to realise the importance of unity and brotherliness in Africa. While I blame the youths of the country for the attacks, I will blame the leaders of of any country more that allows xenophobic attacks against fellow Africans for whatever reason."
It also prompted the Nigerian government to call for intervention by the African Union. The strain was visible last week during a board meeting of the South Africa-Nigeria Chamber of Commerce (SA- NCC), where fears were raised for business bearing the brunt of the xenophobic attacks.
However South African trade union figures have said it is important to understand the context of the recent violence. They point to wage rates being eroded as employers take on migrants in their efforts to circumvent the country’s tight labour laws. The official SA unemployment rate is 27.6 per cent.
As the current incidents il- lustrate, hostility towards foreign nationals is still pervasive in the country and has result ed in protests, looting and the destruction of residential property and businesses, as well as mass displacement.
Several reasons have been put forward for the recent up- surge in xenophobic violence. One of the key reasons for anti-immigrant sentiment is political scapegoating. Writing on Aljazeera.com Jean Pierre Misago, a researcher with the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, said: “Political leaders and officials of the national, provincial and local government often blame foreign nationals for their systemic failures to deliver on the political promises and satisfy the citizenry’s growing expectations.
“Due to this scapegoating many South African citizens perceive foreign nationals as a serious threat that needs to be eliminated by any means necessary. This perception is stronger among the majority of citizens living in poor townships and informal settlements where they meet and fiercely compete with equally poor African immigrants for scarce resources and opportunities.”
He continued: “By blaming foreign nationals for its failures to deliver on its core functions and responsibilities, the South African government is unfortunately displaying an obvious if sorry sign of weak and incompetent leadership. The triggers of the violence paint an even more worrying picture of the leadership deficit in the “rainbow” nation.”
However, South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma has led the efforts of the country’s political leaders to end divisions between South Africans and immigrant communities. Last month he appealed to the country’s citizens not to blame all criminal activities on foreigners.
Zuma called for threats and counter threats against immigrants on social media to stop. And he denied that the country was failing to live up to Mandela’s dream. He said: “Many citizens of other countries living in South Africa are law abiding and contribute to the economy of the country positively. It is wrong to brandish all non-nationals as drug dealers or human traffickers. The threats and counter threats on social media must stop.”
There was also a call for tolerance from the ruling African National Congress. A spokes- person said: “Violence has no place in our country, where we strive to promote peaceful co-existence between all those who reside within our borders.”
And the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) party has called the attacks misplaced. PAC spokesperson Kenneth Mokgatlhe said: “We are aware of real foreigners who stole our land and left us landless, hence our frustration deepens today.
Mokgatlhe added: “We are striving to unite as a country beyond the psychological boundaries that were orchestrated by imperialists.”