On my work to work (in Observatory, Cape Town) this morning, I heard a seemingly angry woman loudly shout in Xhosa at another black man saying to him that “this is not Zimbabwe”.
She proceeded to refer to him by a word that was not his name and is a derogatory word used to refer to African foreign nationals. The man took offense to this and said that he was not Zimbabwean. I was disturbed by this as I usually am with incidents of racism, homophobia, sexism, Anti-Semitism and other instances of prejudice.
I will assume that the woman was South African. I will also assume that she did not know whether the man was or was not in fact from Zimbabwe even if she might have known or guessed that he was not a South African national.
I will also assume that she thinks that her being born in South Africa (or acquiring South African citizenship) affords her superior rights and status over people of other nationalities in South Africa. This is problematic for many reasons
Xenophobia in South Africa
Xenophobia, which can be best understood as prejudice towards foreigners, has become a bigger issue in post-1994 South Africa. There has been an influx of people from neighbouring African states into South Africa: some with legal status and others without.
With South Africa being the continent’s largest economy, it makes perfect sense that people from smaller economies (and sometimes war-torn areas) in Africa might migrate to South Africa in the hopes of financial prosperity. This type of migration happens all around the world and is not unique to South Africa.
Even within South Africa itself, people from smaller and less affluent parts of the country migrate to urban centres such as Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town with the same intentions yet they do not face the same levels of prejudice towards them as their African counterparts who do the same thing face in their country.
In May 2008, xenophobic attacks swept throughout the country and foreign nationals from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and other parts of the continent were injured and even killed by mobs of angry South Africans. These attacks happened in the predominantly black townships of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban.
One might wonder why these South Africans would act in such a way to fellow Africans; especially when black South Africans are likely to be more sensitive to issues of discrimination, prejudice and injustice. One of the answers is that they believe that the foreign nationals come into South Africa and work for less remuneration due to illegal status or wanting to send remittances back to their home countries where South African currency will convert into more money.
Unfortunately, capitalism also works in such a way that an employer is likely to employ the cheapest labour available over more expensive labour in order to keep their operating costs minimal. As a result, many South Africans believe foreign nationals to have been employed over them.
Apartheid was as much a social system as it was an economic one and many of the South Africans of colour who took it on were frustrated by the economic implications that the system had on them. It is understandable then that the people who risked their lives fighting for equal opportunities and better standards of living might be frustrated when they perceive a threat to this.
After the end of Apartheid, The South African government underwent an extensive project of nation-building in order to try and unite the historically divided people. In attempting to unite people on the basis of a shared national identity, it also disunited them with other Africans and attitudes to non-South Africans became more hostile.
As a result, new derogatory words that refer to non-South Africans have been formed.
Many foreign nationals have become the scapegoat for the shortcomings of the democratically appointed government to adequately address poverty and inequality in South Africa.
One might understand the frustration that South Africans who were excluded from the formal economy under apartheid might have when they perceive another group of people to threaten the rights and access that they fought for however, foreign nationals are not the reason for the lack of redress in South Africa.
Afrophobia versus xenophobia
The first problem is that you will find that she does not hold the same attitude to foreign nationals who are not black, be they African or not. There are many white people who live in South Africa from other African countries.
These white Africans do not receive the same ill-treatment as their black counterparts. One of the main reasons for this probably has something to do with the fact that they seldom, if ever, compete for the kind of jobs that are predominately occupied by the local working class.
A history of an inferiority complex to white people as a whole, might also have something to do with it. She probably does not hold the same hostile attitude towards immigrants from elsewhere in the world (black or white) other than Africa. I know for example that African-Americans who live or visit South Africa are not referred to by the same derogatory word that is used to refer to African foreign nationals.
Xenophobia almost implies that all foreigners in South Africa are likely to be ill-treated when in fact it is mainly only those who are black Africans. Therefore, to call attacks of such a nature xenophobic might miss the core of the issue as they are more likely to be as a result of something along the lines of Afrophobia.
The second problem is that the South African would not have had the same hostile attitude towards another black South African of another tribe or language group owing to the belief that her and the other South African are of the same nationality therefore are equally entitled to living and working in South Africa.
You will find that this woman is also probably opposed to colonialism but forgets that the only reason that she and another South African of another language group or tribe have a shared nationality is because of the boundaries that former colonial powers imposed.
Prior to the discovery of diamonds, gold and other mineral deposits for example, provinces such as Gauteng, The Northern Cape, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and The North-West would not be considered as being in the same country as The Eastern and Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. To hold that colonialism in was wrong yet discriminate on the basis of the arbitrary boundaries that it formed is morally inconsistent and problematic.
The third problem I have with this is that black South Africans, “born-frees” or not, are likely to have experienced prejudice and being called a derogatory name at some or other point in their lives. I for one do not recall the five years I spent in Apartheid South Africa yet can recall numerous instances where I have been referred to by derogatory names in post-Apartheid South Africa.
As a black South African, especially one who fought against Apartheid, you should know how it feels to be ill-treated solely or partly because of the colour of your skin. Therefore it should follow that ill-treating, killing and name-calling fellow Africans is doing the same wrong thing that was done to you.
Especially when one considers that the only difference that African foreign nationals have to black South Africans is that they were born outside the arbitrary borders imposed by colonisers. I do not condone hostility directed towards anyone but also find it more concerning that such a hostile treatment will be reserved for black Africans only.
The threat of Afrophobic attacks remans
In 1960 Frantz Fanon, a renowned African scholar predicted that nation-building and the idea of nationhood could lead to xenophobia when undertaken in post-colonial African states. South Africa is a case whereby his predictions are somewhat true. The South African government which outright rejects colonialism needs to reconsider its stance on the issue of nationhood if it does not want the attacks that occurred in 2008 to reoccur.
Many believe that “charity begins at home” therefore before South Africa can help other Africans, it needs to address the problems within first. I believe that we are all global citizens and can live and work wherever we would like to in the world that we have all inherited therefore I do not endorse the notion of nationhood.
However, I still believe that someone who does believe in nationhood should be encouraging the government to intensify efforts to address inequality and the problems that working class South Africans face because for as long as these problems are not addressed, people will find a scapegoat. Foreign nationals who are competing with locals for the same jobs might find themselves caught in the crossfire once again if there is a failure to address inequality and the basic needs of the working class.
Working class South Africans are increasingly becoming tired of their grievances falling on deaf ears. It has become part of South African culture to resort to violence when protesting about something: some argue this to be the case owing to the fact that it is the only time that the working class gets heard.
The recent Marikana strikes which quickly turned violent are an example of this. For as long as critical government departments such as that of education and other ways that aid the upliftment of living conditions remain in crisis, the threat of such Afrophobic attacks remains.
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