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“South Africans hate foreigners more than ever. Some of them are no longer hiding their hatred of foreigners behind (the alleged loss of) jobs or high crime rates ‘ they just want us to leave their country,” said Anthony Sanko, a Liberian who left his country two years ago.
Acts of organised violence against African migrants break out periodically; Somali-owned businesses in the informal settlement of Diepsloot, outside Johannesburg, have been repeatedly torched and looted this year.
There is also the fear of random violence from South Africans who often view people from the rest of the continent as competition for scarce jobs in a country with 40 percent unemployment, or stereotype foreigners as drug dealers, armed robbers and welfare cheats flooding into the country.
“Xenophobia is a fast-growing problem that cuts across race, class, gender and age,” said Jacob van Garderen, a researcher with the Refugee and Migrant Project of the NGO, Lawyers for Human Rights.
“It is there in Diepsloot, Khutsong, (informal settlements, and) East London, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay (wealthier communities, and) in the (Eastern and Western) Cape Provinces. It is often based on stereotyped beliefs, unfounded media-generated accusations around crime, and access to jobs and social services,” said van Garderen.
According to the 2001 census, in a total South African population of 45 million, just under one million foreigners are legally resident in the country. However, the Department of Home Affairs estimates there are more than seven million undocumented immigrants.
Ishamel Mkhabela, a representative of the Landless People’s Movement in Protea South, a squatter settlement outside Johannesburg, believes South Africans have good reason to feel resentful over the influx of people from the rest of Africa.
“Everywhere locals have to compete with foreigners to get employment, space to build a shack and in gaining access to basic services. Government must understand that we are just wondering why they struggle so much to satisfy foreigners while deprived locals sink deeper into poverty,” said Mkhabela.
Marcell Korth, a researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for African Development, said while discrimination of any kind was unacceptable, xenophobia was linked to the extreme hardships faced by a growing population of disadvantaged South Africans who have not benefited from the end of apartheid.
According to Zimbabwean Collet Ncube, a waiter at a restaurant in Johannesburg’s inner city suburb of Braamfontein, “Everyone who can’t find a job finds a scapegoat in foreigners. Newspapers and the police want to seek foreign links to every crime.”
Nigerians dominate small retail businesses in the Bramfontein area. Sam Adebayo, a shop-owner, is indignant at being stereotyped as a criminal. “We are all victims of crime, but the perpetrators are citizens and foreigners alike. It is wrong to treat all foreigners as criminals and ignore the bigger roles played by locals.”
The Department of Correctional Services has a total of 110 000 convicted prisoners and detainees awaiting trial on its books. Of these, just over 4 percent are foreigners.
Adebayo says South Africans need to accept that business is “more about competition than affirmative action” ‘ a dig at the government’s attempt to create black employment in the 12 years since apartheid ended. To survive in the job market, “locals need to be creators, not seekers, of employment”.
The countries of Southern Africa are linked by a history of migration: South Africa’s mines drew workers from across the region for more than a century. Now, the prosperity of South Africa and the opportunities it represents ‘ despite its reputation for violent crime ‘ has attracted those escaping poverty and instability in the rest of the continent.
“Post-apartheid nation-building should clearly reflect the cosmopolitan nature of the country. Foreigners are still coming into the country, and they will be here for a long time to come. Our definition of nation-building should teach our people to accept this population diversity,” said van Garderen.
The Roll Back Xenophobia campaign, making South Africans aware of the country’s international obligations to refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers, has more than 15 civil society partners. But coordinator Katrina Mseme acknowledges there is a long way to go, and blames the police and media for inflaming the situation.
“Judgemental statements have been made, singling out Mozambicans as carjackers; Zimbabweans are portrayed as cash-in-transit heist specialists; and Nigerians as suppliers or dealers in drugs. The media are fed such stereotypes by the police, and they just offload it on their readers. Such careless pronouncements are not helping the war against xenophobia,” said Mseme.
“We need to deal with these perceptions,” home affairs minister Nosiviwe-Mapisa Nqakula told business leaders in Johannesburg last week. “Xenophobia is spreading like wildfire”, and ignoring the positive role immigrants play in the national economy.
A dangerous tide of xenophobia in South Africa, which stereotypes people from the rest of the continent as criminals and competitors for scarce jobs, is obscuring the positive impact immigrants are making, according to the government and advocacy groups.
“That many South Africans lack knowledge of and contact with foreigners is an underlying cause of xenophobia,” said a report by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and the parliamentary portfolio committee for foreign affairs, which concluded that intolerance was a rising menace to South Africa and its international standing.
The benefits of migration are felt, for one, in the cash registers of South African retailers. Rather than trying to settle in the country, a significant number of immigrants are traders, who rent hotel rooms, pay value added tax on the goods they purchase, and then leave.
“South Africa would not be the centre for continental trade if it was not for the influence of the immigrants. The retail sector is expanding because of the large volume of continental customers arriving daily,” said Jacob van Garderen, a researcher with the Refugee and Migrant Project of South African Lawyers for Human Rights.
The government is worried that rising xenophobia and related violence against foreigners could hurt South Africa’s ability to attract much-needed skills.
“We must appreciate that a developing democracy like ours might not have all the critical skills we require, and that there might be a need to attract foreign skills in a regulated manner,” Minister of Home Affairs Nosiviwe-Mapisa Nqakula told a forum of business leaders earlier this month.
According to recent research, the fast-growing information technology sector has 70 500 vacancies, reaching 113 900 by 2009. The education sector is also expected to face a shortage of up to 35 000 teachers by 2008, while more than 5 000 expatriate engineers are required in the energy sector.
Zambian labour consultant Monica Musonda said many African graduates overseas, keen to return to the continent, considered South Africa an excellent base. “This country is attracting and benefiting from highly educated and skilled immigrants . . . Current trends suggest that the majority are heading for jobs or investments in finance and information technology,” she said.
Many African professionals relocating to South Africa are also creating jobs. “I employ 12 South Africans and that is only my contribution alone. There are many other foreign businesspeople and graduates who came here to offer rare skills and seek investment opportunities because the climate is good. Not all immigrants are asylum seekers,” said Moki Makura, a Nigerian businesswoman previously based in London.
“The problem is not about South Africans losing jobs and economic opportunities (to other Africans), it is about sheer hatred of immigrants,” said a Zambian alarm specialist who asked not to be named.
The report by SAHRC and the parliamentary committee, released in 2002, noted that rights violations of non-nationals also affected South Africans. “The continuing arrest of South Africans deemed to be too dark or too tall bear testimony to the interconnectedness of all rights.” It alleged that politicians had resorted to using the influx of foreigners as a scapegoat for failures in service delivery.
The underlying causes of xenophobia are complex and varied. Unemployment and mounting poverty among South Africans at the bottom of the economic ladder have provoked fears of the competition that better educated and experienced migrants can represent.
“If you get into any shops, you are likely to find that all workers are foreigners because employers favour them. Government is mistaken if it expects citizens to remain silent while foreigners monopolise our right to jobs. They should investigate these accusations,” urged Nonto Khuzwayo, a student at the University of Witwatersrand. South Africa’s shocking crime levels, and the alleged abuse of social services, is repeatedly blamed on foreigners. “It is difficult to prove such allegations, but they have contributed to serious tensions between locals and foreigners, especially in the townships and informal settlements,” said Max Rambau, the coordinator of Utshani Fund, a grassroots housing finance scheme.
The Department of Correctional Services has a total of 110 000 convicted prisoners and detainees awaiting trial on its books. Of these, just over 4 percent are foreigners, many on immigration charges. There is also no clear evidence of immigrants abusing social services.
According to van Garderen, apartheid played a role in the hostility of South Africans towards other African people. “Apartheid-era isolation was reinforced by physical separation and enforced through strict boundaries that prevented one homeland from interacting with another, and the same was true of homelands and the rest of Africa. As a result, South Africans were not ready for the refugee and immigration influx that came after independence in 1994.”
He believes that “The nation-building policies of the new government have failed to teach citizens about refugees, immigration and the country’s international obligations . . . Our definition of nation-building should teach our people to accept this diversity.” ‘ On/oa/he.