The past decade has seen worrying levels of anti-foreigner hate speech and violence in South Africa. According to the African Centre for Migration and Society, there were more than 40 attacks on foreigners in eight of the past 13 years — and more in 2019 than in any year in the last 10 years.
Julius Malema, the populist leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, made a name for himself as a pan-Africanist voice preaching unity. But those days are gone.
In this dangerous tinderbox, Malema and the EFF have now joined the anti-black immigrant chorus, particularly demonising those from countries such as Zimbabwe. This has included visiting businesses they suspect of hiring more foreigners than South Africans.
Although Malema and the EFF claim that their target is employers, their actions suggest otherwise. By identifying how many non-South Africans work at a certain restaurant they focus attention on them, while fuelling anti-immigrant rhetoric online, putting lives at risk.
Already, there have been anti-immigrant marches, including one led by Nhlanhla Lux of Operation Dudula, which removed traders from a Soweto bus rank. In doing so, they misidentified some South Africans.
The Patriotic Alliance, which claims that the city council in Johannesburg is hiring illegal foreigners, spent a day harassing government employees. The scenes are reminiscent of colonial-era labour inspectors who routinely harassed Africans in settler colonies, including from South Africa, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe.
Malema’s U-turn seems to have little to do with policy or the economy, and appears to be motivated by the fact his political momentum has stalled. He is now worried about losing out to parties such as ActionSA, which has gained ground with its anti-immigrant agenda. Now he is selling out the goals of the liberation struggle in a desperate attempt to not be outmanoeuvred by rival political leaders.
In reality, immigrants from African countries are not the problem, which lies in a combination of high corruption, low productivity, and elusive economic growth. Blaming immigrants will not solve the country’s issues — but may well trigger another outbreak of xenophobic violence.
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.