Argument

‘Put South Africa First’ Breeds Hate Toward Other Africans

Anti-foreigner sentiments are growing against Nigerians like me.

A group of Nigerians repatriated from South Africa
A group of Nigerians repatriated from South Africa following xenophobic violence sit after arriving in Lagos, on Sep. 11, 2019. Pius Utomi Expei/AFP via Getty Images

In the wake of the coronavirus, anti-foreigner sentiments are growing in South Africa. In September, thousands of South Africans marched along the streets with banners and placards demanding that Nigerians, Zimbabweans, and other foreigners leave their country. The protesters claimed that foreigners are taking away their jobs and committing crimes such as drugs and trafficking—the same narratives that have been used to attack foreigners and their properties in the past.

As a Nigerian living in South Africa, I’ve become all too aware of how many people feel about me and my compatriots. It’s a bitter form of discrimination in a country that’s proud of being a so-called rainbow nation itself—one that takes some of the old bigotries of apartheid and repurposes them against other Africans. The divisions weaponized against Black South Africans are now used against foreigners. South Africa’s last census of 2011 showed that there were 2.2 million foreigners living in the country—and the numbers have grown since. We’re all in the firing line.

The general feelings on the streets of South Africa toward foreigners is a mixture of antagonism and stereotypes. Since I moved to the country in February, I have seen and heard both direct and indirect resentment and hatred toward foreigners. They are currently driving a new narrative “Put South Africa First.” Hashtags using similar slogans have been trending for some time now, calling for foreigners like me to be driven out. Protesters have marched outside the Nigerian and Zimbabwean embassies in Pretoria, blaming them for the influx of outsiders.

It can get very personal. I recently met a South African woman who—two weeks into our friendship—told me to my face over coffee that she doesn’t like Nigerians and that her mother would be mad if she knew she was hanging out with a Nigerian. I was not comfortable with her anti-foreigner comments, which were vile and toxic, and cut off the relationship

To be sure, xenophobia exists everywhere, as do claims that foreigners are taking jobs. But in South Africa, petty bigotries take a particularly violent tone—and fellow Black Africans are always seen as far more threatening than whites or Asians. Anti-foreigner protests and demonstrations are common across the country—most of them have been violent. In September last year, xenophobic attacks targeting foreigners and their businesses started in Johannesburg. Seven people were killed and many injured during days of carnage and violence.

That violence came into the spotlight in 2008, when foreigners were attacked and their businesses looted by club-wielding mobs. About 60 people were killed and thousands displaced. The attackers claimed foreigners are taking over their businesses, jobs, and bringing crime to their country. Some 12 years later, the attacks continue.

Politicians are also to blame. Many of them have made anti-immigrant comments, especially during election campaigns as a tactic to woo voters. During the build-up to the 2019 elections, anti-immigrant rhetoric was common. President Cyril Ramaphosa promised a crackdown on undocumented migrants at a rally. The main opposition party, Democratic Alliance, also made similar comments.

Other leaders have been equally culpable. Last year, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini was accused of supporting attacks and accusing foreigners of stealing their jobs and causing trouble in the country. He was neither arrested nor prosecuted despite glaring evidence showing him voicing support for the attacks. A commission set up to look into the attacks cleared him of any wrongdoing but mandated him to sign a peace accord with ambassadors of countries affected as part of its recommendations.

The South African Institute of Race Relations says attacks on migrants and their livelihoods highlight the consequences of governance and economic failure in the country. South Africa still remains a dramatically unequal country, with high unemployment rates especially among poor Black communities and informal settlements. Unemployment remains a major challenge and stood at 27.6 percent in 2019 while youth unemployment is around 55.2 percent, according to a World Bank report.

Agreed, some foreigners commit crimes. On Sept. 27, the South African Police arrested five foreign nationals—all Nigerians—for alleged human trafficking after 11 women were found to be working for them as in a brothel as prostitutes. The police say the suspects have been charged to court and are working with the Department of Home Affairs to check their status in the country.

This move is commendable. If those arrested are found guilty after a proper trial, they should face the consequences of their actions like anyone else. But profiling every foreign citizen, especially from Africa, as a criminal is wrong, and sending out hateful narratives would only deepen the tensions toward immigrants in the country.

The government has tried to respond with the National Action Plan, passed in March 2019 to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance. The government says the action is “based on the collective conviction of South Africans that, given the ills of unfair discrimination and inequality are human-made; we have the means to completely eradicate these ills from our country.” But there’s little sign of this materializing into action.

Some activists and politicians including the opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have frequently condemned attacks on foreigners in the country. The EFF’s leader, Julius Malema, is one strong voice during anti-foreigner tensions.

“We don’t want votes from people who are xenophobic,” Malema said after one such attacks. “We must love one another as Africans because showing love to someone from Mozambique, Guinea, Egypt, and Nigeria is self-love.”

For Nigerians, the bigotry of South Africans is particularly biting. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, played a big-brother role during South Africa’s apartheid struggles by providing financial and advisory support to activists and prisoners like former President Nelson Mandela.

Previous xenophobic attacks in the country have seen Nigerians retaliating by attacking South Africa’s thriving business interests like MTN, Shoprite, and Multichoice. There have also been diplomatic rows with Nigeria recalling its ambassador in Pretoria, and announcing that it would boycott the World Economic Forum taking place in Cape Town last year.

But the paradox is that South Africa still remains attractive for Nigerians and others—simply because the corruption at home is so overwhelming, and with the economy recently sliding into recession more Nigerians are likely to take any opportunity to check out of the country. As bitter as bigotry in South Africa might be, it’s more endurable in the quest for a better life than the failure of Nigeria’s own governments. Until that changes, the pattern of other Africans seeking hope in South Africa, and many citizens of the rainbow nation rejecting them, will remain.

Patrick Egwu is a Nigerian freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg, where he is an Open Society Foundations fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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