During my semester at The University of Cape Town in South Africa, I gained incredible insight on the political, economic and social struggles South Africa has faced since its liberation from apartheid.
One of the prominent issues is the country’s continual problem with widespread xenophobia and eruptions of xenophobic violence. This semester, I have chosen to write my Honors Thesis on this very issue.
The xenophobia that South Africa has been dealing with is a very peculiar one. It is almost entirely black-on-black violence against fellow African citizens, most frequently those seeking refuge and asylum in South Africa.
It is also most often found in the informal townships of South Africa, which are predominantly low-income areas for black South Africans that have still not received proper housing and resources from the government.
Despite this, xenophobia is found within all races and classes in South Africa and is frequently perpetuated by the South African government, its health care providers, its police services and its Department of Home Affairs.
In 2008, xenophobic violence in South Africa manifested itself on a scale that had never been seen before. It resulted in the deaths of 62 people and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of foreign-nationals.
Scholars, civil society organizations, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) and International-Governmental Organizations (IGO), in the hope of offering viable solutions to end this problem, have conducted extensive research on the causes and manifestations of this violence. However, overall the South African government has proved incapable of properly addressing the issue of xenophobia in the country.
President Jacob Zuma has significantly harmed South Africa’s reputation through his delays in acknowledging the 2008 attacks and his ambivalence towards admitting that South Africa has a problem with xenophobia.
Denial has been widespread in the government, which has led fellow African countries to condemn and boycott South Africa on multiple occasions; the economic ramifications have been significant.
Overall, many scholars have been too comfortable simply pinning xenophobic violence on economic factors. Of course, there is no denying that South Africans in informal settlements are incredibly poor and largely view foreign-nationals as a threat to their prosperity.
When interviewed, almost all South Africans within informal settlements explain that foreigners come in and steal their jobs, resources and even their women. They bring disease and crime into their communities and essentially ruin their lives. Hence, they do not want any foreigners living in their towns.
However, economic reasoning cannot explain the targeted nature of South Africa’s xenophobia. Why are no whites attacked? Why are there no European foreigners?
Many scholars within the field of psychology have pointed to the common occurrence in which poor, destitute individuals blame other poor and destitute individuals to feel a sense of superiority to others.
Being at the lowest echelon of society, there is nobody else whom they could attack and demean. In many ways, this perpetuates ideals of “us” versus “them” which were popularized during apartheid.
Furthermore, South Africans, in general, view their country as superior to the rest of the African continent, due to the ways in which apartheid leaders created a discourse of South Africa as the only developed and stable nation within the continent.
Apartheid has a truly vile legacy in the country, leading to new forms of divides between individuals on the basis of citizenship and race.
Poverty also fails to account for the fact that state employees frequently carry out xenophobic violence in a variety of forms.
For example, bribing foreign-nationals, refusing to provide them with health-care unless they pay more and beating them up when given the chance.
These abuses have been reported throughout the past decade and have not been decreasing. Corruption within the state is rife, and since the government has not done anything to halt it, it has continued to thrive.
Citizens will often emulate what they see state employees, especially police services, do. The police conducted many mass-deportation projects in the early 2000s, where they publicly caught and expelled foreign-nationals.
As witnesses of these types of policies, local South Africans’ perception of foreign-nationals as a threat to be exterminated is reinforced.
In many cases, they state that they are helping finish the government’s work in order to get rid of all foreigners since they pose a threat to the country.
Of course, multiple studies have shown that foreigners do not actually steal local jobs, but rather create employment. Furthermore, The Migrating for Work Research Consortium based on South African statistics and data found that in 2014, only four percent of the workforce was comprised of international migrants, as opposed to 80 percent of non-migrants between the ages of 15 and 64. However, education of the masses against xenophobia and in favor of migration is lacking in South Africa.
Media has played a significant role in further dehumanizing foreigners of African origins in South Africa. The media regularly associates African migrants with crime, oftentimes stereotyping them by nationality.
Nigerians and Moroccans are seen as drug traders, Zairians as diamond smugglers, Mozambicans as car thieves, etc. Incoming migrants are reported as coming into the country in “floods,” portrayed almost like disease or animals swarming into the country.
The media not only propagates these negative and false stereotypes but also uses derogatory language to describe migrants and migration; yet, they also help propagate false statistics on the cost of migrants to South Africa, despite the fact that no reliable figures exist due to the government’s lack of valid numbers on how many foreigners reside in South Africa.
The international community has called on South Africa to begin mass campaigns and education projects to promote cooperation between locals and migrants, reinforce the benefits that come from said cooperation, and give migrants a human face, which is largely lacking in the country.
The media is frequently called out on its role in this, and many organizations have spent considerable time outlining the reforms the media should go through in order to end this xenophobic discourse.
Of course, the government and its state employees must also go through significant reforms, and most especially, must start establishing laws and policies against the discrimination and abuse of migrants.
Now, why is this important? Why should we care?
After all, it seems to be a problem for South Africa, not the U.S. or the international community as a whole.
Yet, we need to fully understand the dangers and the effects of South Africa’s xenophobia.
The 2008 attacks were not a one time thing. Early 2015 saw more deaths at the hands of xenophobia. Hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and refugees were displaced. The issue is not going away. This is, in many ways, a humanitarian crisis that is also a massive violation of human rights.
Migrants are being abused, neglected, threatened and killed when many of them were fleeing dire situations in their home countries, hoping to find asylum in South Africa, the country that once dubbed itself the Rainbow Nation, a place for peace, equality and love.
This is a refugee crisis to a large extent — not as massive and obvious as the Syrian refugee crisis but still a crisis. The international community is as bound to protect foreign-migrants seeking asylum in South Africa as it is in any other instance.
Yet, the U.S. has made no statements regarding the violence. NGOs and IGOs have heightened their involvement, but the U.S. government and its citizens have largely shown no interest in what is going on in South Africa.
Katerina Mansour, a senior pursuing disciplinary honors, is the author of, “The International Response to South Africa’s Xenophobia.”