OPINION | Civil society must lead the response to xenophobic violence

In the past few years, we have witnessed immigration becoming a political ticket for political parties. We see this all over the world, in countries like the US, Italy, Brazil, and France. In South Africa, the rise of political parties and platforms like Operation Dudula,  the Patriotic Alliance, and Action SA are indicative of this phenomenon. Parties such as these have issued and endorsed inflammatory statements about immigrants. 

The politicisation of the migration debate signals that immigration may become one of the key rallying points in the 2024 national elections in South Africa. The danger lies in that the migration debate can be used to entrench divisions and exploitations. Instead, we should strive to use it as an opportunity to broaden the scope of solidarity and social justice.

The episodic moral condemnation of xenophobia needs to be complemented with ongoing and co-ordinated efforts to counter the notion that immigration is the primary source of South Africa’s social and economic problems. Civil society must call for a national conference on migration, social justice and solidarity against political xenophobia and violence. 

The broad aim of the suggested conference would be to develop a solidarity action plan against xenophobia. The other objective would be to develop mechanisms to hold the government accountable to the principles and activities of the National Action Plan to Combat, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The National Action Plan is the result of South Africa’s commitment to implement the resolutions of the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban

The conference should be the first step towards building a civic infrastructure against xenophobia. This would be a network of individuals and organisations operating in both an autonomous and co-ordinated fashion to create a progressive ecosystem of ideas and interventions, resource mobilisation and skills sharing in South African communities against discrimination. 

My emphasis on the need for a civic infrastructure is based on the idea that it is not enough to morally condemn individual acts of discrimination. Rather, we also need challenge the environmental factors that the generate and reinforce the discriminatory practices and attitudes of the individual.  

It is important for us to exercise caution and apply our critical faculties against the political language used by some state officials and community activists and try to connect this language to its sociopolitical functions. For instance, foreignness tends to be lumped with the notions of a burden on the state’s, criminality and the “stealing of jobs”. In the past weeks, the MMC for Health and Social Development of the City of Johannesburg blamed overburdened hospitals on undocumented migrants

Such statements overlook the fact that in 2021, Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) reported that the total number of foreigners in South Africa was 3.95-million. Given these numbers, then we need to ask ourselves how a cohort of people that make up less than 5% of the population can overburden the health infrastructure of South Africa, which has a population of more than 50-million? Moreover, the constitution stipulates that everyone has the right to healthcare, regardless of their immigration status, even though the Immigration Act contradicts this stipulation by stating that health workers check legal status of patients. 

Our political officials never comment on the negative effects of austerity policies and corruption on public health provision and the effects of population growth on service demand. We must be mindful that one of the functions of the xenophobic language of some state officials is to scapegoat foreigners for the failures of our politicians. 

The scapegoating of foreigners also serves as a ticket to political office for politicians that provide simple solutions to complex issues. This includes former Democratic Alliance mayor Herman Mashaba in Johannesburg, who campaigned on a ticket that blamed crime in the city on “illegal immigrants”. We also see this in movements like Operation Dudula that blame immigrants for crime and unemployment

In both instances, crime is not a human phenomenon that rises because of opportunity and difficult circumstances. It seems what is implied is that crime is a result of foreignness. Foreign nationals are blamed for most of the crime, but one wonders from where such assumptions are derived when the 2016-17 Gauteng South African Police Service annual report stated that it was able to detect offenders only in 23.9% of murder cases and 17.9% of aggravated robberies

We also need to be open to the idea that xenophobic acts and language reflect ignorance and misunderstanding about how migration contributes (or, rather, does not significantly contribute) to the high rates of unemployment in South Africa. The political economist Duma Gqubule has argued that the solution to the unemployment crisis in South Africa lies in the government abandoning its austerity policies and mobilising state resources to remedy the problem. 

Unemployment in South Africa can be resolved only by political will, especially the will to rethink the ideological consensus around the macro-economic policy direction of the country. The neoliberal economic restructuring of the South African economy has largely been responsible for the loss of jobs in the unskilled and semi-skilled sectors. Faced with this reality, local anxieties have become exacerbated, with some people seeing foreigners as competitors for scarce resources. 

Migration has its economic benefits for the families of the migrants back at home as well as the local populations in the receiving country. For the families of migrants, the benefits are often in the form of remittances. 

However, what is specific about South Africa is that conflict over wealth generation with migrants is often centred around the informal economy. Since 1994, South Africa has seen an increase in migrants from neighbouring countries, parts of Asia, as well as the western, eastern and northern parts of Africa. Moreover, the people moving into South Africa tend to be from developing countries. South Africa’s informal sector offers some opportunities for migrants. The success of migrants has become a source of envy and conflict for different groups in South Africa , mainly local competitors and the unemployed. 

A zero-sum approach prevents many people from seeing that the businesses of migrants benefit locals in direct and indirect ways through rents, VAT on goods sourced from formal businesses, and the employment of locals in businesses. Moreover, the zero-sum approach blinds many people from seeing that some migrant businesses in the informal market experience certain risks, such as the challenges to gain access to insurance because of their status, which is especially important to protect these businesses from xenophobic action. 

The informal economy presents an opportunity for both migrant businesses and locals to learn from one another and share important skills and this could serve as means for integration into communities. Nevertheless, the informal economy will not solve the problem of mass unemployment in South Africa.

Civil society needs to take charge and redirect the conversation on migration in an inclusive instead of a divisive direction. Lessons of working beyond our divides can be derived from the trade union and political history of South Africa. 

The three diseases of poverty, tribalism and ignorance identified by leaders of the decolonisation period continue to plague Africa. We need to stand on the side of unity because the problems of Africa are interdependent and, therefore, require a collective and shared initiative. 

Xenophobic violence is not exceptional to South Africa, nations such as Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Nigeria and Ghana also have a history of discrimination against foreigners. Instead of dwelling on stereotypes of national vices and pointing fingers, South African civil society should lead the path of establishing a new, inclusive consensus based on solidarity, development and unity on the migration debate in Africa. 

I think a national conference is the first step towards that ideal. In closing, we should not forget the words of Tanzanian leader, Julius Nyerere “The achievement of unity will not itself solve the problems of Africa. It will merely enable them to be solved  . . .  despite all difficulties — indeed because of them — Africa must unite.”

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Bongani Mavundla
Bongani Mavundla is a PhD sociology student and researcher at the Institute for Social and Health Sciences at Unisa. He writes in his personal capacity.

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