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Articles on political and social issues in Cameroon, Africa and the world as seen by Njei Moses Timah > Why Some South Africans Attack Foreigners

21 May 2008

Also Understanding Why Most of their Victims are mostly poor blacks

In little over one week, at least 40 people, mostly poor African migrants, have been killed in a wave of rising violence targeting them in South Africa. Xenophobic attacks on Africans are not a new phenomenon in this country of 43 million but it had rarely taken the dimension witnessed in the recent past. It has been reported that apart from the killings, some gangs have gone on a looting spree, emptying shops of suspected foreigners and burning what is left of the shops. The violence that was hitherto confined to Johannesburg’s surrounding townships (low income settlements) had gradually spread into the city center. There was police reinforcement to curb the spreading violence and to protect the approximate 4m to 5 million foreign residents of South Africa. By Wednesday May 21, when the government was forced to call in the army, the violence was already spreading out of Johannesburg and there were reports of violent incidents in Durban. By the last count some 30,000 foreigners were reported to have fled their homes with many taking refuge in churches, mosques and police stations.

The ruling ANC party was quick to issue a statement in which she “unequivocally condemns such xenophobic attacks” and urged South Africans to denounce such acts and consider them as hate crimes. The party’s leader Jacob Zuma reminded South Africans not to forget the solidarity extended to them from other Africans when they were struggling against Apartheid. He reasoned that the violence was mostly perpetuated by criminals that were taking advantage of the friction between migrants and locals.

One needs to consider several factors in order to understand what is going on in the South African society. Generally, the country has an unenviable crime record and violent crimes account for the loss of over 19,000 lives annually. Whenever there is some sort of disorder, there is no shortage of hoodlums to raise the situation to a crescendo and profit from it to loot and reign mayhem and bloodletting on others. Such people allegedly hijacked a community meeting that was meant to discuss how to combat crime and used it as a springboard to ignite the latest crisis that was almost running out of control until the army stepped in.

South Africa is a nation that is emerging from a long period of racial segregation and entering into what I may call ‘wealth segregation’. Here is a country with a Western European-style sophisticated economy that still has quite a bunch of her citizens scratching an existence on less than 2 dollars a day and some of them are dwelling in embarrassing stone-age shacks called homes. Largely due to historical reasons linked to Apartheid, many of South Africa’s blacks are landless and others have not acquired the necessary education that can enable them integrate into their country’s modern economy.


Glitter and gloom in the same setting...shocking disparities


In order to meet up with the ‘rainbow nature’ of post Apartheid South Africa, some employers recruited blacks from the new wave of qualified African migrants that were escaping from economic hardship in their respective countries in search of el dorado in the new African economic power. Political instability, repression, bad governance, and wars that were and are still rampant in parts of Africa helped push more Africans to the more stable and more prosperous South Africa. A typical example is Mugabe’s misrule of Zimbabwe that has forced an estimated three million of his compatriots to cross the border into South Africa.

As usual, in such situations, some of these immigrants became involved in criminal activities while the less qualified amongst them that could not easily fit into the economy found themselves in the townships competing with poorer South Africans for housing and jobs. It is the resentment by some South Africans of these immigrants that has occasionally boiled into fatal skirmishes. The government will condemn such acts and point to its liberal laws that guaranty the rights of the immigrants. Yes, but that is meaningless to the uneducated or poorly educated South African youths that seem to be disconnected from the country’s economic prosperity.

The end of Apartheid came with the lifting of all restrictions imposed on the black population. Imagine a black South African that was living in a shack in Soweto during Apartheid years and was forbidden to live in Johannesburg city center. At the end of Apartheid, he was told that he can now live in the glittering city. He is elated but soon finds out that the monthly cost of a small apartment in Johannesburg is several times his annual income. He then reasons that work restrictions have also been lifted with the demise of Apartheid and as such he can now apply for a high paying job so that he can afford to live in Johannesburg. There are job openings with attractive pay packages but he did not acquire the necessary education to be considered for those jobs. Frustration sets in when he realizes that racial segregation has been replaced by segregation based on wealth and education. He soon realizes that even the menial job he has been doing to keep body and soul together is under threat. Desperate migrants from failed or failing states like Somalia, Zimbabwe, Congo DR, etc are willing to receive lower wages from his employer and replace him. His frustration soon turns into anger against his equally frustrated and poor immigrant neighbors.

It is in this context that we must view the ongoing black-on-black violence in South Africa and understand that there is no short term solution to it. The dividends from black rule in South Africa have not yet reached many of the country’s poor who are predominantly black. The solution can only come when these people are lifted out of poverty and ignorance. It is an enormous challenge for such a country that kicked off with many social complications including, particularly a yawning income gap between the rich and poor.


Njei Moses Timah