South Africa: Ugly Politics Aggravate Xenophobia

Image: Flickr,UN Geneva
Image: Flickr,UN Geneva

The attacks on migrants from elsewhere in Africa in South Africa recently are not simply a result of xenophobia.

They are a product of ugly, debased politics in which mainstream political activity becomes fused with lawlessness and vengeance, write AllAfrica guest columnists Terence Corrigan and Faten Aggad. South Africans have been shaken by the recent eruption of mob violence targeting foreigners living among us. At this writing, some 62 people have been killed, while tens of thousands have lost property or fled their homes. South Africa’s reputation as a proponent of human rights and cooperation has been tarnished, and both Nigeria and Kenya are reportedly seeking compensation for losses suffered by their citizens.

The attacks have raised questions about the malaise from which South Africa appears to suffer. “Xenophobia,” the common categorisation of the attacks, cannot on its own explain the violence. After all, South Africans have been living alongside foreign nationals for decades. This suggests that other factors are involved. We need to understand what they are – urgently.

One of them is the inability of the existing democratic process to mitigate conflict. A constitutional democracy allows conflicting ideas of what is appropriate, morally good or simply the best option, to be openly debated, incorporated in policy and then judged by the electorate. The latter may reject the solutions on offer, but democracy will have channelled the conflict into the marketplace of ideas rather than onto a battlefield. Citizens of a constitutional democracy should feel bound to respect the law, but on the clear understanding that they have the right, within the law, to challenge policies and laws with which they disagree.

In South Africa in recent weeks we have seen people choose another way of expressing their grievances. For whatever complex reasons – preliminary observations suggest they include anger at competition for jobs and services, envy at the perceived success of foreigners, and suspicion of other cultures – significant numbers of people regard migration and the presence of foreigners as “an issue” – over which they are prepared to kill.

South African policy on immigration has been uneven. On the one hand, it has procedures for and restrictions on people wanting to immigrate to South Africa. The government’s Department of Home Affairs’ website says quite bluntly: “South Africa can accommodate only a certain number of immigrants. … [it] has a vast reserve of unskilled and semi-skilled workers who are entitled to employment opportunities and to an economically viable lifestyle for themselves and their families.”

On the other hand, there is a “shoulder-shrugging” approach on the part of policy-makers. For close on a decade, an emphasis on border security was rejected. A 1999 White Paper on migration noted that “the migration system must not heavily rely for its success on actions taken to secure the country’s land and sea borders from people willing to cross them illegally.”

Since then, Zimbabwe has collapsed economically, sending millions into South Africa through its northern border. The government refused to recognise the crisis and President Thabo Mbeki airily claimed that it made no sense to build Chinese walls between the two countries. The upshot is that large numbers of Zimbabweans are forced to earn a living illegally in South Africa.

As resentment at the presence of migrants grew among South Africans, the government failed to confront it. On the ground, the political system failed to channel people’s grievances into formal channels, perhaps because of the absence of adequate political structures through which people can express fears and preferences. (For instance, South African members of Parliament are chosen from party lists and do not formally represent geographical constituencies.)

The failures may speak also to a lack of understanding on the part of ordinary people as to how they can make themselves heard, or to a political culture in which the dominance of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) for the foreseeable future has made debate and proper engagement seem unnecessary.

So what we are seeing is much more than xenophobia; it’s ugly, debased politics. News reports of mobs setting upon foreigners while singing the signature song of the new ANC leader, Jacob Zuma (for which he cannot, it must be said, be held responsible, and which he has condemned) are a nasty illustration of this. In the minds of the mob, there is a fusion of organised, mainstream politics with lawlessness and vengeance.

South Africa should remember that recent violence on the streets is only the latest in a series of similar outbreaks – two years ago, it happened in the town of Khutsong, west of Johannesburg, when a community was to be reallocated to another provincial government. Straws in the wind?

Migrations and xenophobia have been political issues in many parts of the world throughout history. The Roman empire experienced severe stresses after non-Romans settled in it. Japan closed itself off to the outside world between the 17th and 19th centuries, largely as a reaction to the spread of foreign ideas, particularly Christianity. And during the 19th century, the influx of impoverished, Catholic Irish to the United States and Australia was often bitterly resented; businesses would display signs saying “Help wanted – No Irish Need Apply”.

Today, promises to “get tough” on illegal immigration are a feature of many societies. Immigration is an abiding issue for debate in the United States. Parties and politicians with tough policies on immigration are prominent in France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands and Denmark. Botswana is experiencing resentment at the recent influx of Zimbabweans.

Perhaps what any country can learn from elsewhere is the need to encourage intelligent, effective policy engagement. In most democracies facing migration difficulties, migration and xenophobia become political issues, and can be handled within democratic political structures. The solutions offered may be good or bad, but as long as the issues are dealt with within the political system, constitutional democracy functions. It may be imperfect – there are no magic solutions – but it’s far better than what we have seen in South Africa over the past weeks.

Policy engagement by citizens enables their views to be aired, but also teaches them the limitations of solutions. So while South Africa has the right to decide who should be allowed in, enforcing this will be difficult and expensive and may come at the cost of other social services. This is a trade-off that informed, free, engaged citizens will need to make and be willing to take responsibility for.

If we choose to misread the problem, and insist that tough measures are the only way to deal with xenophobia, democracy itself will eventually be the casualty.