/ 6 February 2024

Expect more scapegoating of foreigners as elections approach

Xenophobia and other forms of dehumanising vulnerable minorities have been central to the rise of the far right across the planet in recent years.
Taking advantage of local communities’ despair and desperation, the politicians agitate by blaming foreigners for stealing jobs (Getty)

The African migrants who have come to regard South Africa as their new home due to the political and economic quagmire in their own countries don’t feel safe, given the regular conflict between them and indigenous South Africans. 

The situation is worsening as elections approach, as we begin to see politicians exploiting Afrophobia to appeal to disillusioned and disenfranchised South Africans.

Godknows Musambo, whose name I’ve changed for her protection, was refused entry at a primary school in Zeerust in North West. She is a seven-year-old whose parents fled the conflict-ridden North Kivu region of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1996. 

Godknows’s mother runs a small restaurant while her father works as a petrol attendant at one of the filling stations in town. They’ve been living in the area since the late 1990s and it has become home to them. 

Godknows and 12 other children from the Congolese community in Zeerust were keen to start their academic careers on 18 January 2023. However, their parents were told to “go home” because the local residents did not want to share educational facilities with the Congolese community. The parents were shattered — what option do they have? 

Their jobs are in Zeerust, this is where they have lived their entire adult lives, and their children are South African because they were born here. 

As a freelance journalist, I have written two stories on the rising tension between the Zeerust locals and the Congolese community. I was accused of siding with the Congolese but I did not care because I’d been called names before. 

I knew that there was criminality involved in how they carried attacks against the Congolese. However, for me, it is impossible to paint all the Congolese with the same brush. It would make more sense for me to identify all the drug dealers, for example, without looking at their nationality or background, and do something about it as a community without fear or favour.

I invested effort in conducting investigations where I established that South African drug dealers in Zeerust were largely behind the violent attacks on the Congolese community. There is a fight for territory between South African drug dealers and the foreigners who are taking over the “market”.

It’s a multifaceted problem as some local business owners are also chasing the Congolese away from Zeerust. 

These Afrophobic attacks have kept rearing their ugly heads over many years. Politicians are exploiting this social catastrophe for narrow political ends. The Congolese claim that the tension ratchets up whenever elections are approaching when politicians make divisive statements by blaming foreigners for the unemployment and hunger of the locals. 

Taking advantage of local communities’ despair and desperation, the politicians agitate by blaming foreigners for stealing jobs. Which jobs are they talking about? Who works in municipalities, government entities, retail and other parts of the economy? 

From the pedestrian point of view, the members of the Congolese community in Zeerust dorpie tend to own, and work in, fast-food outlets and hair salons. 

Last year, the Congolese were forced to close down their salons for more than a month. However, residents did not start their own hair salons because they are not prepared to do menial jobs. 

The Congolese in Zeerust chose South Africa as their haven but they continue living in fear as a result of growing tension between so-called “foreign nationals” and South Africans. When they came here, they did not think that they would be rejected in Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation, that people would use them as scapegoats for their socio-political problems.

At the heart of this friction is the battle for scarce resources. There is a popular narrative that African migrants are “stealing jobs” from the locals, as well as selling drugs to the country’s youth. 

The English poet William Blake said “To generalise is to be an idiot. To particularise is the alone distinction of merit. General knowledge is that knowledge that idiots possess.” We cannot collectively punish people based on their background. It is myopic and illogical to believe that all foreign nationals are the same and therefore behave in the same way.

It is unfortunate that politicians and business people trivialise and politicise a sensitive issue such as this one. We have to learn, and relearn, to be people with ubuntu (African humanism), where we see ourselves in others. 

That is, we need to be sympathetic towards people and stop behaving in a self-centred way. We do not want to make charges and take responsibility for our failures, instead we want to shift blame to people who don’t have any influence on us now or in the future. 

Our economic misfortunes cannot be blamed on foreigners — that is purely propaganda spread by the politicians who are running the country to the ground. 

In 2007, when I was in high school in Zeerust, I was taught by teachers from Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana. When I was studying for my undergraduate degree, I was taught by lecturers from Zambia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and China. I mention this to demonstrate the kind of role and influence so-called foreigners played in my life and those of others. 

We tend to focus on the negative aspects of so-called foreign nationals. Why are we not talking about the positive contributions they make, such as those I mention above? They shaped my education and those of many others in this country — why are we chasing them away? 

We do not talk about the positive role they are playing in the educational, economic, technological and social sectors. 

Security agents, both on the borders and inside the country, should do their jobs by making sure that people who enter and exit South Africa do so legally. Once they are inside the country lawfully, it is the work of the police to ensure that every one of us obeys the country’s laws and constitution, including the foreigners. 

Everyone who engages in drug trafficking or human trafficking, for example, should face the music — the law is the law, period.

Foreign nationals are not the reason you and I are not working. Foreign nationals are not stealing money from the public purse.

Kenneth Mokgatlhe is a columnist and political writer.