Racism and mental illness

Racism and mental illness have a long, sad history in South Africa, with the effects of apartheid still painfully apparent. SADAG looks at the issue of racism towards foreigners from neighbouring states.

Since the 1994 elections, there has been growing concern over the number of economic and political refugees hopping South African borders, to find a better life. Every one in five squatters is believed to be a so-called "illegal alien". These immigrants come from countries all over Africa, and even from as far as India and Pakistan. The largest group of immigrants is from Mozambique, with the second largest being the economic refugees from Zimbabwe.

The increase in the flow of illegal immigrants, since the 1994 elections has led to a rapid growth in local xenophobia toward illegal immigrants. Xenophobia defined, as a "fear of foreigners" is better described as an intense dislike rather than fear. These anti-immigrant sentiments have led to increasing hostility and violence.

Data gathered as part of a larger investigation into the dynamics of illegal immigrants by the Institute for Strategic Studies at the University of Pretoria and the Centre for Socio-political Analysis at the Human Sciences Research Council, concluded: "these data show that hostile sentiments towards illegal immigrants are building up - even in the relatively short period from October to December 1994 - especially among black South Africans and people with a lower or no education."

'Stealing jobs'
Their growing numbers, the increasing unemployment in South Africa, and the fact that disadvantaged South Africans are finding it harder to blame apartheid for their unimproved situation, have made them an easy target as the new scapegoats. South Africans are blaming them for stealing jobs and for lowering the wages, as the immigrants are prepared, in some instances, to work for much lower wages.

Labelled now as "outsiders", these aliens are also considered to be the main cause of increasing crime and as spreaders of disease. But it is estimated that illegal immigrants are responsible for only 14% of crime. They are also accused of ruining the housing programme, because many of the illegal immigrants acquire false documentation. Illegal immigrants are viewed as parasites by the local community, and are referred to as "makwerekwere" (a disparaging term for "African immigrant", mocking the way the foreigners mumble in English).

On the other hand, there are other South Africans who see the illegal immigrants as a source of cheap labour, without whom many farms and businesses would go under. It is precisely this willingness to work for less than half the desired wage that is causing South Africans to blame them for stealing jobs.

Lost contact

Millions of either political or economic "refugees", most of whom are rural, traditional people from a culture of pride and strict moral codes, are coming to South African cities, which are rife with crime, disease and degradation. Many have lost contact with their family and friends back home and without the support of strong family ties many are negatively influenced, and this mixed with the disillusionment that accompanies the reality of SA, leads to substance abuse and sometimes resorting to a life of crime.

Post traumatic stress disorder
The immense stress of moving to a new country is bad enough, and when combined with the stress of being "illegal" and in constant fear of being arrested and deported, the loneliness and alienation of being an outsider, and sometimes the added stress of exploitation by employers who take advantage of the fact these illegal immigrants have no rights in the eyes of the South African law, can lead to incredible anxiety, depression and substance abuse. Ill-treatment and physical attacks can also lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Symptoms like a racing heart, sweaty palms, shaking, gastrointestinal problems, difficulty breathing, chest pains, dizziness and nausea are often experienced by sufferers of panic disorder and are often associated with irrational thoughts and a fear of losing control, going "crazy" or a fear of dying. A disorder which often occurs with excessive anxiety or alone is depression, which consists of a persistent sad or empty mood, feelings of guilt, hopelessness and worthlessness, difficulty concentrating, sleep and weight disturbances, increased use of alcohol and drugs as a form of self-medication, and thoughts of death or suicide. We can see why these disorders would be very prevalent amongst a group of people whose basic human rights are violated on a daily basis, making self-esteem and a feeling of security difficult to attain.

While South Africa's neighbouring states are economically disadvantaged, the tide of illegal immigrants is not going to stop, and while there is still unemployment in South Africa, xenophobia will thrive. The consequences of this situation and the impact it has on mental health are a reality.

Surely South Africans must have learned by now, that the human condition, no matter what the person's race, culture or legal status, is the same. Everyone is looking for happiness and fulfilment, and a better life for themselves and their families. This applies also to responses to disillusionment, stress and discrimination. (SADAG, updated November 2010 by Health24)

For more information please contact SADAG on 011 262 6396.

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