from Africa in Transition

Legitimizing Xenophobia: How South Africa Breeds Distrust of Foreigners

October 27, 2015

Blog Post

This is a guest post by Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, a journalist and adjunct professor at the Columbia Business School.

Twenty-five years ago South Africans sought global assistance to create an inclusive democracy. As of yet it has failed to achieve that goal. South Africa continues to sit economically as it does geographically, at the nexus of the first and third world. It’s a nation of people from developed and developing countries, and of rich and poor. It is plagued by inequity between, and within, its black and white neighborhoods. Economic opportunity is limited, social cohesion remains fragmented, and the country has devolved into bouts of identity violence with foreign populations often the victims. This is especially the case in economically vulnerable areas where there is competition for housing, education, employment, and ultimately for survival.

Even though South Africa signed a twenty-six-nation free trade pact this summer creating a common market spanning from Cape Town to Cairo, it is experiencing its worst violence toward immigrants since 2008. It wants to promote pan-African commerce, but not pan-African community within its borders.

Seven people have died, thousands more were arrested or displaced and yet there has been only limited action to quell the strife. President Zuma has denounced the violence but also railed against neighboring countries saying, “As much as we have a problem that is alleged to be xenophobic, our sister countries contribute to this. Why are their citizens not in their countries?”

Other half-hearted government measures include relying upon law enforcement and creating a parliamentary committee to study the violence. But, the police have limited tools and the committee, suffering from rampant absenteeism among its members, has failed twice to submit its report due in August. News leaks intimate that its recommendations will be benign, amounting to promoting increased dialogue between impacted parties and ensuring that foreigners have proper documentation.

These measures don’t address the underlying problems: a lack of shared economic prosperity and a spate of misguided citizenship policies that contribute to xenophobia. Unemployment was 24.3 percent in 2014 (35 percent including discouraged job seekers). In 1995, a year after transitioning to democracy it was recorded at 15 percent.

Unemployment is near 50 percent among eighteen to twenty-four year olds, and 64 percent including discouraged youths. Structural factors explain some of the difficulty: low education levels, especially among blacks, as well as some geographic factors from the apartheid era that physically separated the population by race, creating pockets of poverty and wealth.

With growing inequality, there is increased mistrust as disenfranchised South Africans note that foreigners are prospering despite stiff odds. Unlike European countries, South Africa doesn’t provide social assistance; immigrants have to fend for themselves.

Still, the foreigners, mostly Somalis residing in the townships, have proved to be savvy entrepreneurs. Given nothing, many have become traders, running small shops that stay open longer and charge less than local stores. They undercut prices by forming buying clubs, with several families pooling money together.

Simon Fraser University sociologist Heribert Adams surveyed South Africans in the townships asking why they didn’t copy the foreigners. Many responded, “We don’t trust one another.” Yet, even so, while they won’t share their burdens with one another, they trust that their government will shoulder their hardships and enshrine their opportunities, thereby making it seem as if their problem stems from foreign competition.

Indeed the government has increasingly enacted policies that create a zero-sum environment where citizens have rights and foreigners have none, sending a message of mistrust. These rules misguidedly create an expectation that citizen rights trump human rights.

New visa regulations make it harder for foreigners to obtain a general work visa by forcing employers to not only explain why a citizen or permanent resident could not fill the position but offer proof of its efforts to do so, and even target foreign families, forcing them to carry copies of unabridged birth certificates. Too, a proposed new land bill would bar foreigners from owning agricultural land. Even South Africa’s teachers union is exclusionary, prohibiting foreigners, despite some being better equipped than locals.

But by narrowing the definition of who belongs and who has entitlements, by passing ever-more exclusionary rules, the government is breeding divisiveness. It’s also sending a message to its poor that they need the government’s protection to prosper. Foreigners in South Africa know that’s not true.