/ 2 January 2024

Ethiopia and the myth of inequality and xenophobic violence

Party leaders condemn xenophobia.

In discussions about the xenophobic attitudes and violence towards black African migrants in South Africa, the dominant and taken-for-granted hypothesis is that socio-economic inequality is a major cause of anti-foreigner sentiments and attacks. 

We see this line of argument across many academic research papers and commentators. I have also heard many lay people citing poverty and economic adversity among South Africans as the main reasons for xenophobia in townships and informal settlements. 

Most xenophobic attacks in South Africa occur not in affluent suburbs but in townships and inner-city neighbourhoods and, in most cases, it is unemployed South Africans and others experiencing economic hardship who are viewed as voicing anti-migrant sentiments and being violent towards non-South Africans. 

However, xenophobic sentiments are not limited to the poorer sections of society but are also widely present among middle-class and affluent South Africans. 

Despite this, many still tend to cite poverty and inequality as a major causal factor. There is also a tendency to see poverty and inequality among citizens of host countries as a universal trigger for xenophobia. In other words, citizens experiencing poverty are predisposed to take out their socio-economic frustrations on the migrants living among them. 

But can inequality or poverty always explain the presence of xenophobic sentiment and violence against migrants in a host society? The Ethiopian case presents a contrary scenario — despite societal inequality, anti-migrant xenophobic violence seldom occurs. 

There have never been rallies or protests targeting migrants in the country. As in many countries in Africa, there is socio-economic inequality but citizens don’t blame migrants for this. There are hundreds of thousands of migrants living among Ethiopians but reports of xenophobia are extremely rare. 

There is unemployment in Ethiopia, but Ethiopians don’t blame the foreign migrants living among them for this. 

Due to the absence of xenophobic violence in Ethiopia, despite the presence of large numbers of migrants alongside socio-economic inequality, there are no research studies, to my knowledge, on the subject. 

On my visits to the country, in informal conversations, all the Ethiopians I chatted with expressed welcoming and tolerant attitudes towards migrants living among them. I never came across an individual who expressed hatred towards migrants. 

I also never came across print, online or broadcast media reporting on or discussing xenophobia in Ethiopia because it does not exist as a social phenomenon.  

A common theme I picked up from my Ethiopian interlocutors was, “Migrants or citizens, we are all the children of God.” This speaks to the progressive cultural morality and tolerant social values of Ethiopians, centred on conviviality and our common humanity. 

But it appears that the main factor for the non-existence of xenophobia as a social phenomenon in Ethiopia is the total absence of anti-migrant speeches or narratives by the country’s leadership and public figures. 

It has become common to see public figures in many migrant-hosting countries in the world blaming migrants for their countries’ social ills and socio-economic problems but we don’t observe this phenomenon in Ethiopia. Xenophobia appears to be a socio-cultural taboo among Ethiopians. 

I therefore argue that the rampant xenophobia in South Africa is primarily fueled by the many irresponsible public figures who blame mainly African migrants for social and economic problems South Africans face. 

We have observed that, since the advent of democracy in 1994, some public figures have pointed to migrants as the main cause of socio-economic problems in the country, such as unemployment and crime. 

I believe the tide of xenophobia in South Africa can be turned if public figures embrace 

a strong pan-Africanist spirit. In order to bring about the tolerant and welcoming attitude towards migrants prevalent in Ethiopia, public figures should desist from demonising them. 

Despite experiencing socio-economic problems, a society can be welcoming of migrants — Ethiopians are an example. 

Dr Amanuel Isak Tewolde is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannesburg.