/ 20 March 2022

Poverty and policy drives xenophobia in South Africa

Safrica Migration Economy Unemployment Demo
South Africa promotes the African Continental Free Trade Area — yet its immigration and labour legislation is becoming increasingly anti-African. (Photo by EMMANUEL CROSET / AFP)

I don’t want to write this column. 

I have just come from a work trip to Accra, Ghana. Accra is one of my favourite cities on the continent. It is a bustling coastal city that offers a culturally rich and cosmopolitan experience. In every subsequent visit to the city since my first trip some 15 years ago, I see progress — the improved Kotoka Airport, better roads, telecommunications and tourism infrastructure and better social services. 

Every time I go to Accra, I see so many opportunities. I wonder how much more value the city, and Ghana, would derive from a partnership with an established tourism city such as Cape Town or a marketing agency like Tourism SA. 

I also see how much South Africa could learn about speedily improving immigration services at ports of entry so that they are digitised, fast and predictable. Every time I go to Accra, one more form is digitised, the visa on arrival process is quicker. Filling out that flimsy immigration form on the flight to South Africa becomes more embarrassing. 

I am an Afro-optimist but every time I travel on the continent, it coincides with increased threats of violence by South Africans against African immigrants. So, I don’t want to write this column. I feel uncomfortable when I am asked to explain why South Africans hate Africans so much when I am in other countries. This resurgence of xenophobia, anger and debates on whether South Africans are “inherently xenophobic” hasn’t got us far. 

There is a long history of immigration to South Africa, which has been fuelled by the commercial requirements of sectors such as mining, construction and agriculture. 

From the mid-1800s to the 1970s, the country encouraged immigration to attract semi-skilled labour to drive production. As political tensions rose, the apartheid government would abandon its position on attracting migrants from neighbouring countries to protect the minority white population from being “overrun” by black people. 

The post-apartheid government would initially try to rectify this position, by adopting a more African-immigrant sympathetic view alongside the African Renaissance narrative. 

Although the political narrative was initially Afro-sympathetic, legislation has focused on finding, detaining and deporting immigrants. 

We see this characterised by the many “Operations” to “clean up” townships and areas perceived to have an Afro-fuelled crime problem. Just this past weekend, the police service reported that it had arrested more than 400 people, most of whom are suspected of being illegal immigrants in Johannesburg in what it termed “Operation Restore”, which focused on Soweto, Hillbrow and Alexandra in Johannesburg. 

In its public communications, the police service made sure to focus on the criminality element, highlighting that suspects were arrested for “possession of drugs, possession of live ammunition, possession of counterfeit money, dealing in liquor without a licence, assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, rape, and violation of road traffic regulations- including driving while under the influence of a substance”. 

There has been an increase in the incidence of unfavourable views toward immigrants, particularly since the late 1990s, with perceptions of immigrants low and deteriorating fast. 

According to the World Values Survey, only about a third of the population supported migration in 1996 and 2001. By 2007, only 23% of the population in the country still supported immigration. But even as violent mobs direct their anger at Africans and certain Asians, South Africa doesn’t call these actions xenophobic.

In 2019, the government introduced the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which was meant to help stem the rising prejudice against certain groups including African immigrants, even as its political leaders continued to deny the existence of a xenophobia problem in the country. 

Still, the government thought something should be done about a problem it often claims doesn’t exist. 

South Africa does have problems. First, the country has had a growth problem for most of the post-1994 period and even though growth increased from 2.9% in 2002 to as high as almost 6% in 2006, that period did not create the type of jobs that could accommodate the type of skills that were in high supply in the labour market. Since the Great Financial Recession of 2007 to 2009, growth has continued to decline.

Before the pandemic, the unemployment rate was at 29.1%, the absorption rate at 42.4%, and the labour force participation rate at 59.8%. Statistics South Africa published a report in 2019 stating that South Africa’s economic performance has worsened dramatically during the period 2010 to 2019, going from a decade high of 3.04% in 2010 to barely expanding at 0.113% in 2019. The average annual growth rate of about 1.7% over a 10-year period was inadequate to provide the requisite employment growth.

The inflation rate remained high throughout this period, surpassing the 3-6% inflation target set by the South African Reserve Bank in 2016 to hit 6.5% before easing down to less than 4% in 2017.

Just this past week, the World Bank released its Inequality in Southern Africa report, which confirmed yet again that South Africa is the most unequal society in the world, with 10% of the population accumulating 71% of all wealth in the country. 

In an environment of low growth and high income inequality, tensions are bound to escalate. Operation Dudula, the anti-foreigner movement growing in many neighbourhoods, is probably only the beginning. 

One never wants to excuse hate discrimination by pointing to poverty and inequality, but they are contributing factors. And when politicians blame foreigners for crime and joblessness, it’s important to talk about the economy and remind people that economic and political choices have brought us to this point, not African foreigners. 

Outside of South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa is the biggest proponent of the African Continental Free Trade Area, because he understands that, as one of the most industrialised nations on the continent, South Africa stands to gain significantly from an integrated African marketplace. Although the president undertakes trips to African nations to lay the groundwork for economic partnership, at home he shows a reluctance to be a progressive voice on the importance of the African continent for this nation’s prosperity. 

The result is that South Africa will remain in this space where the president’s agenda on Africa will remain in conflict with his party’s political narrative, and the actions of other government departments. 

In many ways immigration in particular and our foreign policy in general are the clearest example of how directionless the ANC has become in the past 15 or so years. The ease with which ANC leaders adopt anti-immigration stances at election time is just part of the problem. 

I don’t want to write this column because things are bad and fixing them takes time, time we no longer have. I don’t want to write this column because I don’t believe that South Africans have the leaders that can take advantage of the African free trade agreement to enable growth quickly enough to curb the social upheaval that is waiting to be triggered by one too many crises.

I don’t want to write this column because South Africa is an insular nation with little interest in the rest of the continent. When this country finally succumbs to the weight of all of its sins, I wonder where most of us think we will go.

Zama Ndlovu is a columnist and communicator and the author of A Bad Black’s Manifesto