Addressing Historical Injustices is Key To Preventing Xenophobia in South Africa

Last month saw the upsurge of xenophobic attacks in South Africa where businesses owned by immigrants were destroyed and looted by a gang of machete-wielding youths who also injured and killed several foreigners.

The attacks continued despite the country’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, calling for the arrest of those involved and warning that the violence could trigger retaliatory attacks against South Africans living in other countries.”There can be no justification for any South African to attack people from other countries. We are against xenophobia. These attacks are completely against the rule of law,” he added.

Alarmed by the situation, US President Donald Trump through Twitter, threatened the South African government with sanctions by saying, “These barbaric attacks by South Africans are very disappointing, its time we put South Africa under strong economic sanction. First, it was the white minority, now it the African. Either Cyril gets his people in line or we pull out all our investments and they learn.”

What was so ironic about the xenophobic outbreak was that it happened on the eve of the Africa World Economic Forum in the capital, Cape Town. The forum provided the best platform for South Africa to showcase its commitment to greater integration and trade with the rest of the world. It was, therefore, a shame that it was overshadowed by the actions of a bigoted gang.

However, it is not the first time xenophobia has swept through the country once hailed as a rainbow nation because of its diverse population. Ever since the African National Congress took the reigns of power from the white minorities, there have been repeated cases of xenophobia. The first known case was in 1994, the same year the country had its first election to end apartheid and to usher in a black government led by Nelson Mandela. Since then, attacks targeting foreigners and their businesses have been on the rise.

Most South Africans carrying out these attacks have justified their actions by claiming that the immigrants mainly from Nigeria and Zimbabwe, have taken over their jobs, and their economy leaving them with nothing. They also accuse the immigrant whom they derogatorily refer to us “Kwerekwere”, of being drug dealers, prostitutes, and robbers.

The truth is that economic hardship is one of the major factors behind the attacks. Over half of the country’s population, who are mainly black, live in poverty in slums scattered in major cities. Many of them are jobless and the few that have been employed complain of being paid very little money. It is situations such as these that have forced South Africans to direct their anger towards immigrants.

The economic hardship can be attributed to apartheid policies which marginalised black South Africans. According to a report by World Bank on the root causes of economic struggle in South Africa, one of the main factors behind poverty in South Africa is racial inequality. Although racial segregation ended in 1994, South Africa remains the most racially unequal country in the whole world. Figures released In 2017 showed the rate of unemployment among black South Africans as 31.4 %, while among white South Africans it was 6.6%.

This inequality in the labour sector is because black people are considered less skilled compared to other races, and therefore stand very little chance of securing well-paying jobs. For a very long time, they were excluded from the workforce and restricted from education. While the white people were taught reading, languages and mathematics, Africans were taught to become unskilled labourers to bar them from competing with the white people for high-paying jobs. The effect of this was that at the end of Apartheid, South Africa had a high skilled economy which relied heavily on educated white people, and a large underclass of unskilled black people who could only find jobs in mines and factories.

As white people began to retire and others moved to Europe, there were not enough skilled South Africans to take over the main sectors of the economy. This presented an opportunity for skilled Africans from other countries to migrate to South African to feel the gap. The repercussion followed almost immediately in the form of xenophobia by the South Africans who felt foreigners were taking over their jobs.

Most disenchanted South Africans have directed blamed their economic problems on the leaders who took over from the white people. Although the leaders are credited for fighting for the freedom of South Africans, they failed to address historical injustices which would have created an equal society. The blame has squarely been on the shoulders of the country’s first African President, Nelson Mandela. Even though the critics accept that he succeeded in championing for racial harmony, they believe that he failed to empower black South Africans economically.

Among those who held this view was Mandela’s his ex-wife Winnie Mandela, who told a London newspaper, “Mandela let us down. He agreed to a bad deal for black people. Economically, we are still on the outside. The economy is very much ‘white’. It has a few token black individuals, but so many who gave their lives in the struggle have died unrewarded,” The critics feel that Mandela was duped into a deal which only favoured and protected the interests of the white people. He appeared to have focused too much on the political side of the negotiations without giving much consideration to the economic aspect that could have addressed some of the racial inequalities.

Unless concrete steps are taken to correct inequalities caused by years of apartheid, South Africa will still see spates of xenophobic attacks. High and persistent unemployment, especially among the young South Africans, is one of the major concern. This can be solved through the creation of jobs, increasing labour demand and raising the productivity of the labour force. But that would be meaningless unless more education opportunities are availed to South Africans so that they can gain the essential skills. Another issue that needs to be addressed is that unequal distribution of land. Most of the country’s wealth and land are still held by very few South Africans, namely white people.