Xenophobia- When Africans became “foreigners”

Developments in South Africa, in the past two weeks have been sad.

Once again in as many years, xenophobic attacks on fellow African nationals, unfolded in Pretoria before spreading to Johannesburg, which has been the prime city for migrants in South Africa.

Among Africans who have set up base in South Africa are Zimbabweans, Malawians, Zambians, Somalians, Congolese and Nigerians among other.

12 people have died while scores have been arrested for the spate of violence targeting African nations in South Africa.

Others called the unfolding violence Afro-phobia as opposed to xenophobia.

These were however academic debates to explain the recurring scourge of violence in South Africa.

The bulk of migrants have taken up lowly jobs in South Africa.

Others, who have been more enterprising have started small to medium scale establishments which include retail outlets.

There is also the largely untold story of migrants who have established themselves well in South Africa, starting thriving businesses across that nation.

However these have been few, if compared to the typical migrant population, resident in poor suburbs and, being prone to violence and other such insecurities.

“Foreigners”, who are in fact fellow Africans, have been accused of stealing jobs from locals, who have over the years instituted violence and in some case widespread looting of shops.

Writing in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies, Nyamnjoh (2014) highlights that 67 people died of xenophobic attacks between 2000 to 2008. 

Nyamnjoh (2014) further notes that 62 people died of another round of violence in 2008.

Over the years, scenes of violence have become familiar.

The graphical pictures of a Mozambican national Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, who died in 2008 after being stoked in flames comes to mind.

In 2015, violence again broke out in Durban and Johannesburg following inciting remarks by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, who hinted that “foreigners” should “go back to their countries.”

The utterances were enough to be read as a declaration of war by some agitated local elements who went on a rampage of violence towards the targeted victims.

Accordingly, xenophobia has constituted a microcosm of the macrocosm; that is a complex problem globally.

The problem of xenophobia has brought to the fore questions about: migration and integration (or lack thereof) human security and insecurity, citizenry knee-jerk response and the attendant complexities of official policy responses expected to condemn violence while at the same time having to locate the domestic environment shaping the undercurrents of violence.

In the story of xenophobia, we are therefore reminded about common migration challenges not only in South Africa but generally world over.

While allegations of stealing jobs have become quite common in South Africa, they have been replayed elsewhere, albeit officially if one looks at American President Donald Trump’s official rhetoric especially towards Mexicans and the Chinese!

Despite the complexity of xenophobia, the recourse to violence, whether sanctioned or being a preponderant criminal activity is a bane to the much needed co-existence of African nationals in South Africa and across anywhere else in the continent.

One nation, distinct narratives

The latest round of violence came at a time when the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa was going on in the serene city of Cape Town.

African heads of state, business leaders, industrialists, diplomats and other honchos were in communion at the glitzy Cape Town International Convention Center (CTICC).

In electing the serene city of Cape Town, the Africa’s WEF fixture mirrored the bigger excursion held in snowy Davos, where the rich, powerful elites and the much vaunted disciples of liberalism congregate about business issues, under the glare of the big media outlets.

In Cape Town, the who is who indefatigably sought to shape the course for Africa’s social and economic future despite the prevailing challenges.

Yet the contrast was written all over, given the scenes of reprisals towards other Africans resident in Johannesburg.

As leaders deliberated on regional integration, especially in line with the African Union (AU) Agenda 2063, elements of the local population went toe to toe with migrants being accused of stealing jobs.

Political contests and regional fault lines

Nigerian nationals were among the foreigners who were targeted by foreigners.

In South Africa, Nigerians, like anywhere else in the world own shops and are key traders there.

There are of course others who are criminal elements engaging in all sorts of vices which include drug cartels. This is not the collective story however, much as it has been presented so for different purposes.

In the end, the ensuing mob attacks on Africans ended up morphing into a regional political contest between South Africa and Nigeria!

In the end, the two African giants have flexed their muscles in the work of official responses against the other, following the impasse.

The two nations compete economically and politically.  Internationally they are also tucked in the jostling to assume the “African seat” at the United Nations Security Council.

In the aftermath of xenophobic attacks, which up to now seem undying given the latest rounds of violence, there have been diplomatic responses as well.

Nigeria summoned Bobby Moroe, South Africa’s High Commissioner in Abuja and, withdrew its ambassador-Alhaji Kabiru Bala, to Pretoria.

Though such expressions are normal in international relations, they nonetheless depict official positions to a problem, which in the end, is solved through diplomatic engagements.

Despite the fissures, it is positive that Nigeria’s President’s impending visit to Pretoria (in October), will go according to plan despite the waves of attacks on Nigerians and generally other nationals.

Apartheid and the politics of solidarity

After xenophobia had unfolded, African heads of state and generally, their citizens expressed their bemusement to the acts of violence. 

This, is despite the support which South Africa was lent by their “fellow brothers and sisters”, during the dark years of apartheid. 

It is well documented that the support from the Frontline States and the then Organization of African Unity (OAU).

The solidarity from Nigeria and other states such as Libya was quite instrumental to South Africa’s realization of independence in 1994.

Despite this support, Africans do not understand the acts of violence, being instigated within the “rainbow nation” reeling with continued wealth inequalities which are a legacy of colonialism.

While South Africa is a power house given its huge industrial base in the continent, it however faces common challenges amongst its population, some twenty-five years after independence.

Despite post independent euphoria, there is still the unresolved land question which has generally split opinion in South Africa.

While fellow Africans are being targeted for “stealing jobs”, the base of South Africa’s continuing problems is “monopoly capital” ( to borrow from Julius Malema) and the reality of the local black population’s social and economic deprivation.

In the end, the responses to xenophobia have largely depicted contradictions of a historically embedded problem of colonialism and that of post-independent social and economic challenges affecting the bulk of the citizenry resident in poor neighborhoods.

By making reference to a one Africa, there is a supposed nostalgia of the borderless continental polity (which however had separate kingdoms).

In the end the post independent African state has been framed as a Western construction following its partitioning in Berlin (in the year 1884-85).

By making reference to the support rendered to South Africa during the apartheid years, there is a formidable identification of the problem which of borders and divisions, authored in Europe!

At the end, there has been a sentimentality of the old politics of solidarity which were instituted by luminaries such as Robert Mugabe, Kenneth Kaunda, Kwameh Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Muammar Gaddafi, Nelson Mandela, Samora Machel, Julius Nyerere and many others who committed themselves to Africa’s collective freedom.

It would seem the sentimentality of the old, which was shared by older generations is somehow dissipating.

When Lumumba lectured Africa

This piece cannot end without making reference to Kenyan Professor Patrick Loch Otieno (PLO) Lumumba.

Few days ago, the swashbuckling gave a lecture at the second memorial of musical icon Ray Chikapa Phiri at the University of Mpumalanga.

The occurred during the incidents of attacks on Africa nations.

While making his delivery, Lumumba expressed the disapproval for “black on black violence”.

Speaking glowingly on the life of Phiri, PLO said Africans must stop fighting each other in honor of the departed musician.

We were told Africa had to unite itself and foster integration.  Making hypothetical situations in constructing Phiri’s life and contribution to humanity PLO further hinted that the musical icon would have called on South Africa to welcome other Africans and nations of the world.

 “He would have said South Africans receive them because your land is the land of the Cape of Good Hope.

In Lumumba, Africa was reminded again about the impediments which the continent faces. Subtly, there was a further reminder about the contradictions of seeking refuge across boarders in far flung Europe and not in Africa!

Of sport, art and political expressions

Sport and arts has over time become an arena of political expressions. What happens on the sporting field or in the recording studio is often a commentary of the complex situations of contemporary political and economic questions of our times.

It is key to note that the disdain for xenophobia was expressed through sport and art.

Zambia cancelled a soccer friendly match with South Africa. Madagascar, who had billed to replace Zambia, did the same.  South African musicians

Despite very little hostility in Zimbabwe, South African musicians- Nhlanhla Nciza and Theo Kgosinkwe, of the Mafikizolo had to cancel their performances.

Despite Zimbabwe not being a threat to the safety of the artists, there were however viral social media messages calling for a snub of the concert.  In the end, xenophobia indirectly built soft avenues denouncing violence.

How xenophobia slowed commerce

In the modern day world, any disturbance ha a negative effect on commerce. 

How else would one read the official responses or unsanctioned citizen’s measures in targeting South African establishments, in their host countries (however uncalled for)?

How else would one read the economic climate in individual countries, coming against the backdrop of the historic African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA), which was signed and heavily endorsed by African member states, earlier on in Kigali? 

How else would one construct the appealing discourse of regional integration, ease of doing business, free movement of people in the wake of these attacks which regress the momentum which had been already made.

In Nigeria, mobile operator MTN’s shops had to be closed following attacks by locals, in retaliation of attacks on Nigerians in South Africa.

There was a similar story as Zambians went on a rampage at retail outlet Pick n Pay.

Multi Choice also had to shut down its offices in Zambia and Nigeria, to avert rampages.  In the Democratic Republic of Congo there were reports of looting at Mr Price, a South African retail outlet.

Further to that, it was reported that the South African consulate was attacked (read here; https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/south-african-consulate-shops-attacked-drc-190905141954604.html).

In the end, the unfolding of attacks and looting of “foreign owned shops” and the recipient response across African nations has depicted a multi-faceted problem with far reaching consequence.

Ultimately, there has been a revisiting of South Africa’s past and that of Africa in general, with the hope of forging the same olden ties, which are now critical for social inclusion and the continent’s development agenda.

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