A potent cure for xenophobia

Andile Ntingi is the chief executive and co-founder of GetBiz, an e-procurement and tender notification service. (Photo: Finweek)
Andile Ntingi is the chief executive and co-founder of GetBiz, an e-procurement and tender notification service. (Photo: Finweek)

South Africa’s decade-long economic slump is stirring anti-immigrant sentiment.

When economic growth grounded to a halt in the aftermath of the global recession in 2009, competition for scarce resources intensified between South Africans and immigrants, contributing to the resentment of the latter, who are often accused of stealing jobs from the locals.

This resentment sparks sporadic xenophobic attacks, some of which have been deadly and resulted in the displacement of foreign nationals.

These attacks, which occurred in 2008, 2015, and 2019, are more pronounced in poor communities who live in squatter camps, townships, and the inner cities. These communities are usually plagued by high unemployment, poverty, crime, corruption, and inept service delivery.

However, in recent months the anti-immigrant sentiment has reared its ugly head again, this time spreading to sections of society not normally associated with xenophobia. The popular Twitter account Lerato Pillay has contributed to stoking anti-immigrant narratives on social media. The account (@uLerato_Pillay) has popularised “#PutSouthAfricansFirst” since its creation in November last year to a point that middle-class South Africans are beginning to latch on to this narrative.

The campaign is also getting support from conservative political parties, like the African Transformation Movement (ATM), led by parliamentarian Vuyo Zungula, and newly-established ActionSA, masterminded by former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba.

Black business chamber Nafcoc, which has been calling for a clampdown on participation of foreign shopkeepers in the spaza shop market, is also behind the #PutSouthAfricansFirst campaign. At the time of writing, the ATM was planning to lead a protest march in Tshwane on 28 September to hand over a memorandum to the department of home affairs, calling for a tightening of immigration laws to curb illegal immigration. The campaign also gained traction at the height of a strike by local truck drivers in July against the hiring of immigrants in their sector.

The resurgence of xenophobia has alarmed organisations like the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC), which has been tracking the @uLerato_Pillay account. The centre has established that before the account was created, anti-immigrant conversations on Twitter averaged around 250 posts a day.  This figure has now jumped to 30 000 posts a day and on extremely busy days, it leaps to 80 000 posts. These posts blame immigrants for taking jobs from locals and often hurl insults at EFF leader Julius Malema for supporting the idea of a borderless Africa.

Although this growing anti-immigrant sentiment is often described in social and traditional media as xenophobia, I view it as economic nationalism, borne from a growing backlash against globalisation across the world.

This anti-globalisation movement has already had serious political ramifications. It started with Britain voting in a referendum in 2016 to leave the EU and has been gaining momentum ever since. The so-called Brexit was followed by the rise of Donald Trump as a political juggernaut in the US, which culminated in him winning the presidential elections in November 2016.

Although many political pundits have pointed out that the people who embraced Trump and Brexit are xenophobes, there is a counter-argument that the supporters of these tight-wing political movements are actually patriotic economic nationalists, many of whom have been dealt the worst hand by globalisation. 

In both countries, these victims are mainly white, working-class citizens, who are either unemployed or have seen their standard of living drop due to stagnant wages. 

In Britain, Brexit voters wanted an end to unrestricted immigration from the EU, while Trump supporters wanted a “wall” built between the US and Mexico to block illegal immigrants from Latin American countries entering the US.

Trump supporters also yearned for high tariffs to be imposed on cheap Chinese imports that outcompeted American products, causing de-industrialisation, particularly in the steel sector – once a major employer in the US. These anti-globalisation yearnings were reflected in Trump’s presidential inauguration speech in January 2017 when he unveiled the “America First” policy that signalled a shift by the US from outward-looking to trade protectionism.

This shift also signalled the beginning of an end in globalisation, which has dominated economic thinking for the past 30 years. Pro-globalisation thinkers believe that labour and capital must be able to move across borders without any hindrance, just like goods and services. 

Proponents of globalisation argue that allowing labour to move where wages are higher has enormous benefits. It boosts competition and efficiency, thereby reducing prices of goods and services for consumers. However, anti-globalisation critics counter that this unregulated competition damages indigenous working classes in countries that host foreign labour and capital.

The clash between proponents of globalisation and economic nationalism is also playing itself out in SA. Here, the supporters of the #PutSouthAfricansFirst campaign appear to be prodding the government to discourage an influx of foreign labour into the country through restricting illegal immigration.

With the Covid-19 pandemic having worsened unemployment and inequality, we are likely to see the campaign being stepped up in the post-lockdown era when the economy is fully reopened.

There is no denying that political pressure is building over the immigration issue – as shown by the government’s willingness to make amendments to legislation governing immigration, the granting of citizenship and refugee status.

The battle lines are clearly drawn over these looming amendments. A potent cure for xenophobia is economic growth. SA will have to find the growth that has been elusive for the last decade due to a lack of investment, corruption, and the decline in mining and manufacturing, which once provided employment to many South Africans.

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This article originally appeared in the 8 October edition of finweek. You can buy and download the magazine here.

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