Xenophobia: Why attacks won’t stop




South Africa’s High Commissioner to Nigeria, Bobby Monroe (extreme right) during a press briefing with Nigeria’s foreign affairs ministry headed by Geoffery Onyeama in Abuja on Tuesday.

There has been an understandably huge uproar in the past two months over xenophobic attacks against migrant Africans who moved into South Africa in search of economic opportunities and a better life for their families. These attacks began in 2007, nearly 13 years after South Africa freed herself from White minority rule under the then apartheid regime.

It is now estimated that about 500 incidents of xenophobic attacks occurred in the country between 1994 and 2018. Several people have been injured while over a hundred persons have been killed in cold blood by marauding men wielding axes, machete, and iron rods. The shops of migrant Africans have also been vandalized or looted and/or set ablaze in the course of mayhem.

Xenophobic attacks in South Africa have generated wide ranging responses in the form of condemnation of the South African Government for failure to protect the lives and property of migrants in their country. African countries whose citizens have been targets, the African Union, as well as the international community have all also expressed dismay at the sporadic xenophobic attacks in a country seen by all as a beacon of hope for the rest of the continent.

It is my belief that the xenophobic attacks which began 13 years after South Africa’s independence marked the beginning of the country’s second liberation war while the first of the liberation wars was fought to rid the country of White minority rule. I envisage that the third liberation war will be fought over land.

The conditions under which black South Africans have been living to-date can simply be described as pitiable. Pitiable is indeed an understatement because millions of them still live in shacks built with woods or corrugated iron sheets etc. in the countryside years after political independence. What the visitors to the country see in big cities like Johannesburg or Cape Town or Pretoria give little information about blacks in the entire country. Of course these beautiful cities contain slums where black South Africans live and which also harbour large numbers of migrants from the rest of the continent. The policy of the apartheid regime impoverished black South Africans. The black Africans have virtually been dispossessed of their ancestral land which is one of the major reasons for their impoverishment. This is discernable as you travel by road through the country.

There is already agitation being spearheaded by a renegade faction of the ANC for something to be done to get black South Africans to re-possess their ancestral land though some sort of land reform initiative such as buying off land and re-distributing it to black South Africans. This demand is in the front burner of President of the Republic, Cyril Ramaphosa. He knows that the black South Africans cannot, and have not been enjoying and will not enjoy the benefits of political independence unless his fellow citizens (black Africans) can access land.

Today, vast numbers of black South Africans still perceive themselves as people still living in the wilderness and that something must be done to remedy the situation. South Africa is therefore sitting on gun powder which will sooner or later explode if nothing is done. Land was the issue in Zimbabwe which eventually exploded under Robert Mugabe. The explosion which I foresee, will take place and it will be South Africa’s third war of liberation unless something is done on the land matter very quickly.

I perceive the current xenophobic attacks as being symptomatic of the second of South Africa’s liberation wars.  The reasons for the foregoing assertion are not farfetched and can be attributed to a number of factors/issues. Firstly, the locales are unable to compete against migrant Africans who have more or less taken over the informal sector of the country’s economy. Migrant Africans are the ones owning and running small shops, selling goods which include homes movies, computer accessories, doing all sorts and making good money while black South Africans who are unable to compete feel/believe that they have been left behind in their country.

The second source of grouse among black South Africans is that they see/know that migrants are not playing by the laws of South Africa in their drive to make money in a frontier economy with lots of opportunities to be tapped. The activities of migrants include that of peddling hard drugs in townships and poaching girls/women for sexual gratification and sex work etc. There are anecdotal reports that Nigerians and Tanzanians are the major players in these activities, – drug trafficking, sexual gratification, and prostitution.

The third grouse is over what seems to be the neurotic sexual drive of Nigerian men in particular for South African girls, women, and housewives which has incurred the wrath of black South African men. While some Nigerians are respectably married to South African girls/women, it seems than many others in the lower end of the socio-economic ladder who marry their girls/women do so for instrumental reasons. They marry or go out with them to be able to use the girls/women as mules for trafficking hard drugs or in order to acquire South African citizenship when they might already have their wives/children back home in Nigeria.

All of these sorts of behaviours cast Nigerians/migrants as dubious people and they also fuel anger towards foreigners. It is therefore not surprising that the xenophobic violent and vicious attacks are led by male folks in South Africa. They can be seen in photos published in national and international newspapers as well as in the social media in the forefront of xenophobic attacks, carrying dangerous items like axes, cutlasses cudgels, iron rods to attack Nigerians and other migrants in person including their businesses/premises.

Fourthly, South Africans also see migrants who are drug peddlers and traffickers and making money through dubious means as despicable and undesirable and are tempted to ask: Why on earth should their authorities allow these people to turn their country upside down? Why should they be allowed to use money to poach our girls/women and/or to deploy them to do sex work with all the risks (HIV/AIDS)? Why are they using our country for instrumental reasons? All of the above constitute an affront to right thinking black South Africans which they can no longer take.

The government of South Africa can do very little to protect migrants and is not also likely compensate victims of xenophobic attacks against fellow Africans.  Migrants and the government of their respective countries are likely to continue to shed crocodile tears indefinitely because impoverished black South Africans will continue to unleash xenophobic attacks against migrants who are believed to undermining their well-being.

And so my advice to Nigerian migrants in particular and others from the rest of Africa in South Africa, – To your tent O Israel!!!

Professor Erinosho is formerly executive secretary, Social Science Academy of Nigeria, Abuja.

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