Xenophobia has swept across parts of Africa like a thunderstorm, leaving death and destruction in its wake. In the past few weeks, xenophobic violence against Rwandans was reported in Zambia, where shops were looted and at least 13 people repatriated to their home country. And earlier this month, 1 500 Burundians were asked to leave Rwanda.
South Africa has, however, been at the epicentre of this storm. Following last year’s attacks in Durban and the greater Gauteng area, thousands of foreign nationals had to flee back to their home countries of Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The governments of these countries had to send buses to repatriate their hapless citizens.
An estimated 5 000 people were displaced, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Other migrants are still picking up the pieces of the 2008 attacks that left 67 people dead. Meanwhile, foreign nationals say they don’t feel safe in South Africa and that regardless of their status or track record, they are still at risk of being labelled as amakwerekwere, or foreigners.
To remedy this damage, President Jacob Zuma and the South African government have been trying to use Africa Day to bring South Africans closer to their counterparts from the rest of Africa. But can it work?
Ignorance among young South Africans about the rest of Africa is a serious concern Tweet this
In June 2015, just under a year ago, Zuma addressed fellow African leaders about the terrible attacks that had left seven people dead and thousands homeless. The session was held behind closed doors at the 25th Assembly of the African Union (AU) in Sandton, Johannesburg. In his speech, which was published by the Presidency, Zuma said one of the ways South Africa would fight xenophobia was by placing much more emphasis on promoting the ‘African identity’ of South Africa.
Africa Day, 25 May, he announced, will be observed throughout the country. In fact, South Africa would celebrate the month of May as ‘Africa month’ to forge greater understanding by South Africans of their fellow Africans. Zuma told African leaders that the first of these celebrations, which took place in May last year, were highly successful in ‘promoting our African identity, unity and peaceful coexistence’.
He added: ‘To further promote our African identity, children in all schools are learning to sing the AU anthem. The AU flag will also be flown in all government buildings. We have urged the private sector to also fly the AU flag alongside the South African flag.’
Zuma's speech followed an earlier meeting between South African ministers and representatives from the African diaspora in South Africa. Clearly, the outcry from the rest of the continent following the 2015 attacks made the government sit up and take note.
South Africa’s policy on migrants does not recognise the economic benefits that they can bring Tweet this
For the first time, xenophobia in South Africa was had been discussed by the Peace and Security Council of the African Union. Several African heads of state spoke out against what was happening; and some South African businesses in Zambia and Mozambique were targeted in response to the treatment their fellow citizens were receiving further south.
The main concern of the migrants and their representatives in South Africa is an amnesty period for migrants to get legalised, and for fair treatment of those who do have legal status in the country. They also want those responsible for xenophobic attacks to be prosecuted for their violent acts, which date back to 2008.
Marc Gbaffou, Head of the Africa Diaspora Forum, also attended the ministerial meeting. The Diaspora Forum, an umbrella organisation that represents migrants from 21 African countries, believes that ignorance among young South Africans about the rest of Africa is a serious concern, which has to be remedied.
The South African government has taken that to heart, and earlier this month initiated a vast campaign to promote awareness of Africa and its diaspora. Nathi Mthethwa, Minister of Arts and Culture, launched the campaign on 3 May. The ceremony was held at the Cradle of Humankind; a symbol, he said, of Africa's contribution to humanity. Among the celebrations are concerts, cultural festivals and a conference on the African Renaissance in Durban. But will this be enough to foster an understanding of other African cultures and prevent xenophobic attacks?
Xenophobic statements from powerful politicians legitimise such attitudes Tweet this
Gbaffou says that while some in government are making an effort to quell the xenophobia against migrants, others are exacerbating the problem. Gauteng Province Premier David Makhura, for example, attended the African Diaspora’s annual Africa Day celebration in Yeoville yesterday; an area close to the Johannesburg inner city, which is home to many migrants. ‘In previous years we invited government representatives for Africa Day, but they never turned up,’ says Gbaffou.
At the same time, however, the Premier of North-West Province Supra Mahumapelo has ordered foreigners owning small stores, known as spaza shops, out of the province. He wants these to be owned by South African citizens only. This could see many small traders from places like Somalia be forced to pack up and leave.
Gbaffou says this flies in the face of the guarantees given by the government last year. Many of the Somali traders are asylum seekers, and have the right to work in South Africa. Yet they face huge hardships – and their shops in less developed areas are routinely attacked and raided whenever there is a flare-up of xenophobia.
Gareth Newham, Head of the Governance, Crime and Justice division of the Institute for Security Studies adds that high-ranking politicians and cabinet ministers, such as the Minister of Water Affairs Nomvula Mokonyane, and Small Business Minister, Lindiwe Zulu, have made statements revealing that they are not happy about foreign nationals living in South Africa – but did not suffer rebuke by the president for doing so.
The problem of xenophobia continues to simmer beneath the surface Tweet this
‘When powerful politicians make negative statements about foreign nationals, it sends out a strong message that they are a problem in our communities. It is highly unlikely that official government events will adequately address the damage caused by xenophobic statements from powerful politicians, which legitimise such attitudes held by many people at community level,’ says Newham. He adds that South Africa’s policy on migrants does not recognise the economic benefits that they can bring to the country. ‘While the political rhetoric may be pro-Africa, the policies and legislation show that the South African government view foreign nationals with suspicion and do not want them here’.
South Africa houses a large number of refugees and asylum seekers, but this pales in comparison with countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, which have seen refugee numbers sky-rocket due to the crises in South Sudan and Somalia. Africa is home to a total of 3.7 million refugees and 11.4 million displaced people. According to the latest UNHCR figures, released in 2015, there are 65 000 refugees and 295 000 asylum seekers in South Africa.
These refugees are asked to integrate themselves into communities, and government is strongly opposed to creating refugee camps or special zones for refugees like in other African countries. Even when thousands of people were left homeless in the recent wave of xenophobic attacks, government insisted that temporary shelters should be destroyed and people moved back to live in the community.
Clearly the problem of xenophobia in South Africa is huge, and continues to simmer below the surface despite efforts by the government. Using Africa Day – which marks the founding of the Organization of African Unity in 1963 – to promote unity is a laudable initiative. It is a good time to celebrate African music and cultural achievements across the continent and in South Africa. It is also an opportunity to forge better understanding among Africans from all nationalities. But for it to have impact, the initiative should be accompanied by a real rethink of policies that treat foreign nationals as a security threat.
Two examples of such policies include The Regulation of the Private Security Industry Amendment Bill – which seeks to prevent companies with less that 51% South African ownership from operating in this sector – and the recent Home Affairs visa regulations, which makes it more difficult for people to travel to South Africa. If this doesn’t happen, the storm that is xenophobia will wreak havoc across South Africa once again.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant