from Africa in Transition

The Conflicting Messages of Jacob Zuma

May 22, 2015

Blog Post

This is a guest post by Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, a journalist and adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has denounced the anti-immigrant violence racking his country while also promising to step up a crackdown on illegal immigration. It’s a tricky and dangerous high stakes game to play, one that does not address the nation’s underlying problems of unemployment and poverty, and that sadly puts South Africa’s stability at stake.

The country is indeed at risk of destabilization. While President Zuma may claim that more South Africans have electricity, are connected to piped water, and have standard sanitation than one year ago, his record is dim on the economy as a whole.

South Africa’s economic growth was 1.5 percent last year, representing the country’s second-lowest growth rate over the past sixteen years. The nation’s unemployment rate, at 25 percent, is one of the highest in the world. Unemployment is over 50 percent for those between 15-24 years old. These poor economic circumstances, coupled with Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini’s incendiary remarks in March that foreigners “should pack their bags and go” because they are taking jobs from South Africans, have incited violence against migrants. King Zwelithini now claims that journalists misquoted him.

President Zuma’s call for tolerance and calm has been largely ignored. Indeed, the country is experiencing its worst violence against immigrants since 2008, when nearly 60 people were killed and some 50,000 were forced from their homes.

Just this past weekend police arrested nearly 4,000 people, half of them allegedly illegal immigrants, in an effort to promote calm. In April, a clash between locals and immigrants in the port city of Durban left seven dead. Since then, nearly 2,000 foreigners from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and other African countries have fled their homes for government-created refugee camps.

A University of the Witwatersrand study estimates that 4 percent of South Africa’s population is made up of immigrants, divided about equally between legal and illegal immigrants. Zimbabweans comprise the largest group, and some analysts estimate they account for 23 percent of South Africa’s workforce.

Human rights groups and African nations have condemned the attacks. Countries like Kenya, Malawi, and Zimbabwe are evacuating their citizens from South Africa. In Zambia, one radio station, QFM, has stopped playing South African music in solidarity with the victims. In Mozambique, there are reports that South African energy and chemical giant Sasol sent hundreds of South African nationals home after Mozambican employees protested their presence.

So why are President Zuma’s pleas for peace going unanswered? He may only have himself to blame. He is sending conflicting messages about immigration and the value of immigrants. He’s called the violence “shocking” and said “many [immigrants] bring skills that are scarce that help us to develop the economy and are most welcome to live [in] our country.”

Yet, Zuma has also said “there are socio-economic issues that have been raised which are being attended to. These include complaints about illegal and undocumented immigrants in the country, the increase in the number of shops or small businesses that have been taken over by foreign nationals and also perceptions that foreign nationals commit or perpetrate crime.” Such statements send mixed signals.

So what can be done? First, President Zuma, who has known poverty and was once a migrant worker in Mozambique and Zambia, needs to denounce that he is a member of the emerging anti-immigrant wave washing from Marie Le Pen’s France, to the United Kingdom’s Independence Party, to the Greek rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Then he should fulfill the promises he made one year ago when his party won a decisive 62 percent of the nation’s elections. Back then he said in his acceptance speech, "This mandate gives us the green light to … promote inclusive economic growth and job creation."