/ 7 October 2022

Xenophobia and the beggaring of neighbours

Dudula (1)
Reckless: Operation Dudula members attack black Africans in Alexandra, Johannesburg. Getting rid of poor black foreigners will not stop crime and solve the unemployment problem. (Leon Sadiki/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

This week, at an Operation Dudula event in Jane Furse, Limpopo, a member of the xenophobic group was shot and killed. In the ensuing investigation, a murder suspect was shot and killed by police.  

It almost seems a distant memory but, recently, Limpopo health MEC Phophi Ramathuba harangued an undocumented Zimbabwean national at a hospital in the province. Her tongue lashing of the bed-ridden patient was met with laughter from the crew of health officials that accompanied her as she accused foreign nationals, including those from Mozambique, of overwhelming the provincial health system. 

In response to Operation Dudula, to Ramathuba, and to xenophobic expressions more generally, many have called for a renewal of ubuntu values. What is not seen, in all this, is a fulsome discussion of South Africa’s place in how the region can escape poverty. Or, stated differently, there is loud silence about regional economic policy.

An important voice to guide thinking about South Africa’s place in the region is that of the late president Julius Kambarage Nyerere of Tanzania. In October 1997, Nyerere delivered a powerful speech to the parliament of South Africa. In it he decried that South Africa under apartheid was a destabiliser of its neighbours. 

The greater point that he made, though, was that post-apartheid South Africa should not assume the nonsense that it is a “big brother”, an economic superpower in Africa. For, as he pointed out: “The power that Germany has is European power, and the Europeans are moving together. The small and the big are working together. It is absurd for Africa to think that we, these little countries of Africa, can do it alone.”

For Nyerere, Africans needed to realise that we are interdependent: “Each of our countries will have to rely upon its own human resources and natural material resources for its development. But that is not enough. The next area to look at is our collectivity, our working together. We all enhance our capacity to develop if we work together.”

Another important voice for thinking about post-apartheid South Africa’s place in the region is Dr Joseph Hanlon. In 1986 Hanlon, a correspondent for the BBC, edited a book titled Beggar Your Neighbours. In the introduction, he wrote about how the apartheid regime deliberately attacked its neighbours between 1980 and 1984. 

In this short period of time Hanlon estimated that 100 000 people died and a million were displaced as a result of the violence unleashed by the apartheid regime. In the same period, more money was lost to these economies as a direct result of fighting apartheid machinations than these states received in foreign aid. 

The military actions of the apartheid regime, and the destabilisation of other regional economies that it undertook, were in Hanlon’s view, “part of a coherent South African strategy”. The apartheid regime not only wanted to fight so-called border wars to keep anti-apartheid insurrection away. It also wanted the resultant impoverishment of neighbouring states for propagandist “proof” that black majority governments could not rule themselves. To highlight this, Hanlon titled his book, Beggar Your Neighbours.

To better understand Hanlon’s title, one must understand that in 1937 British economist Joan Robinson described what she called “beggar-my-neighbour policies”. These economic policies work to distort trade to enrich a nation in the short term while making its neighbours poorer. In the long run, the whole neighbourhood, including the state that implements such policies, suffers from the total reduction of trade that inevitably results. 

It is difficult to deny that a good number of foreigners who have found themselves in South Africa have done so because of apartheid actions that destabilised regional economies. It is important to now ask how post-apartheid South Africa’s trade policies have enabled regional prosperity or worked against it.

In at least one instance it may be said that post-apartheid South African economic protectionism contributed to the downfall of the economy of Zimbabwe. As noted, 20 years ago, by Richard Hess in a paper for the London-based Overseas Development Institute: Zimbabwe-South Africa trade has always been marked by huge imbalance in favour of South Africa. Yet, when a bilateral trade agreement that dated back to 1964 expired in 1992, “South Africa unilaterally abrogated it and steeply hiked tariffs on Zimbabwean imports which had been enjoying zero or reduced customs duties thus effectively pushing Zimbabwean products, especially textiles and clothing items, out of the South African market.” 

Nobody can deny that corruption and failed economic structural adjustment programmes distressed the Zimbabwean economy in the 1990s. However, some part of the distress can also be understood in terms of the trade relationship between South Africa and Zimbabwe. This is especially so in the textiles and clothing sectors. 

It is now well known that the collapse of the 1990s economy in Zimbabwe is part of the background to its politically expedient land reform programme and to the greater economic collapse that was to hit Zimbabwe in the new millennium. Yet there is little media coverage on South Africa’s trade policy in the region. The masses are hardly given cause to think about how the country’s comparatively large economy impacts upon other countries in the region — leading to many undocumented workers seeking jobs in South Africa.

While trade policies influence experiences of wealth and poverty, South Africans continue to fail to discuss regional trade policies which may be beggaring neighbours and producing poor neighbourhoods. 

To address regional poverty, more than regional trade policies need to be spotlighted though.

Recently, South Africa introduced transit visa requirements. Given that South African is an important hub of regional air travel, this may have negative impacts on regional travel. Some say this was the case with a short-lived change in South African immigration control legislation that required those travelling into South Africa with minors to carry long-form birth certificates. 

It need not be said that these immigration policies, which are founded on negative attitudes towards foreigners, have negative impacts on the South African economy that need to be understood. One just has to look at how measures such as this, that reduce passenger traffic into the region, impact tourism, and South African Airways, the national carrier.

It is unjust to not involve the masses in discussions about how jobs are made and lost regionally. Yet, the history of ubuntu teaches that “the people” are willing to work with their neighbours to produce better shared regions.

Nyerere concluded his 1997 speech to the parliament of South Africa by saying: “We all enhance our capacity to develop if we work together.” As we continue to fail to heed his words, neighbours are attacked after they pour into South Africa as their own national economies fail. 

Colin Chasi is  director of the Unit for Institutional Change and Social Justice at the University of the Free State. He writes in his personal capacity.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.