Guest Column

OPINION | South Africa vulnerable to those looking to use Covid-19 to spread hate and fear

2020-04-03 14:30
Dozens of people camp in a corridor close to the offices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Cape Town, demanding to be removed from South Africa saying they are no longer safe here. (Rodger Bosch, AFP)

Dozens of people camp in a corridor close to the offices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Cape Town, demanding to be removed from South Africa saying they are no longer safe here. (Rodger Bosch, AFP)

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In these days of doubt and anxiety, it is important not to let fear fuel our distrust of outsiders.  And we must be careful of those peddling distrust of foreigners for their own selfish ends, writes Steven Gordon.


Ever since the start of the coronavirus (and the disease it causes, Covid-19) pandemic, right-wing politicians around the world have attempted to exploit the crisis for their own ends.

In countries like Hungary, Greece, Serbia and Germany, right-wingers have latched onto the crisis to push their anti-immigrant, anti-refugee agendas.

In one prominent example, populist Italian leader Matteo Salvini demonised African asylum-seekers as coronavirus carriers. 

These politicians have claimed that the outbreak gives credence to their past calls for aggressive immigration restrictions.

The coronavirus crisis seems to be fuelling anti-immigrant animosity in places where foreigners are already scapegoated for other evils (such as crime and unemployment).   

In the past foreign nationals coming to South Africa have been labelled as carriers of disease and maladies that threaten the health of the population. 

There is a danger that the coronavirus pandemic will now fuel such aggressive anti-immigrant sentiments in the country.   

But how widespread are beliefs that international migrants are harbingers of disease and contamination in South Africa?

To answer this question, we can turn to data from the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS). 

The survey series is administered by the Human Sciences Research Council and first started looking at public views on the link between international migration and disease in 2008. 

To obtain a picture of the country's population, SASAS uses a nationally representative probability sample of adults in the nation's nine provinces aged 16 years and older living in private households.

The sample size for the survey is more than 3 000 with interviewing conducted between mid-November and mid-December. 

In order to understand public attitudes towards foreigners and the spread of disease, SASAS respondents were asked if they agreed or disagreed that foreign nationals bring disease into the country.

Responses for the adult population are presented for the period 2008-2018.

Approximately half (53%) of the general public agreed that migrants spread disease in 2008 and only a minority (27%) disagreed with the statement.

The popularity of this belief began to fall in 2015 and only 44% of the population held this opinion in 2018. 

These results show that beliefs about the health risk of foreign nationals is widespread but that civil society and government has had some success in reducing this anti-immigrant narrative.  

As you may imagine, perceptions about the link between foreigners and disease has an impact on the general public's hostility towards the foreign-born.

Let us consider welcoming predispositions in 2018.

A quarter of the adult populace said that they would welcome all immigrants to South Africa.

This can be compared to 47% who reported that they welcomed some and 26% who welcomed none. About two-thirds (64%) of the least welcoming thought that immigrants were a health risk, 20 percentage points above the national average in that year. 

Opinions about the connection between non-nationals and illness were also high among those who had recently engaged in violent action against immigrants. 

Of those in 2018 who said that they committed violence in the five years prior, 65% believed that foreigners were a major driver of disease. 

Politicians may see anti-immigrant narratives (like the one described above) as a way to distract voters from their own failures and shore up electoral support. 

For months US President Donald Trump had, for instance, been calling the coronavirus by its common name.

But then on 16 March 2020 he switched to a name: the "Chinese virus". 

This volte-face appears to be an effort to deflect blame from his administration own slow response to the pandemic.

Such racialisations have worked in the past - this is the same politician who sought to build support for immigration restrictions by referring to African countries as "shitholes".   

President Cyril Ramaphosa has shown greater discretion, dignity and competency than politicians like Donald Trump and has not sought to fuel xenophobic passions in these times of uncertainty. 

Indeed, the South African government should be lauded for its swift and decisive actions in its response to the coronavirus crisis. 

The debt relief fund for businesses is an especially forward-thinking and progressive strategy that deserves to be commended.   

But, as Small Business Development Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni clarified recently, relief funding will only be made available to businesses if they are: 100% South African-owned; and employ at least 70% South Africans.

Why are foreigners who legally own a business in South Africa, who contribute to the economy and help create jobs excluded?

Of course resources are limited but the government must be careful not to play into explosive anti-immigrant narratives with such policies. 

As I have shown here, such narratives are dangerous for social cohesion in our country.  

In these days of doubt and anxiety, it is important not to let fear fuel our distrust of outsiders.  And we must be careful of those peddling distrust of foreigners for their own selfish ends.  

-  Dr Steven Gordon is a researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council and holds a bursary with the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development at Wits University

Read more on:    coronavirus  |  racism  |  pandemic  |  xenophobia
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