The current wave of violence and intimidation against African immigrants in South Africa started in Durban and has spread to Johannesburg and other parts of the country. Intimidation and fear mongering appears to be widespread, generating panic among African foreigners. There have been previous waves of xenophobia in post-apartheid South Africa that also were violent.
What is going on in South Africa is unclear. However, South African xenophobia is in part a response to rampant poverty. Many black South Africans have seen little improvement in their lives in the twenty-plus years since Nelson’s Mandela’s inauguration as president of the “non-racial” South Africa. In terms of income and opportunity, South Africa remains one of the least equal countries in the world. While whites, many Asians, and a small black elite generally enjoy a first-world standard of living, much of the vast black majority remains mired in poverty and underdevelopment. South Africans perceive their society as one of the world’s most violent. Protests, sometimes violent, against poor service delivery in the townships is now almost a daily occurrence. Poor blacks have little political voice, and the governing African National congress (ANC) is increasingly remote from many township dwellers. (Only Julius Malema’s quixotic Economic Freedom Fighters seeks to speak for the poor majority.)
As a result, many blacks South Africans are deeply angry. But the rage and violence associated with the waves of xenophobia is not directed toward whites or the small black elite. Instead, its victims are African immigrants who likely possess little more than their tormentors. Immigrants can readily be identified as “the other.” This is especially true of immigrants from francophone or lusophone Africa. Though, Anglophones, especially Zimbabweans and Nigerians, are also victims. Immigrants are also near at hand – they very often live in townships. Reflecting apartheid’s physical separation of the races, elites, white or black, often live at a considerable distance from poor blacks, with whom they may have little contact.
One of the main drivers of anger seems to be that immigrants are competitors for scarce township jobs. Some immigrants, for example from Zimbabwe, have benefited from better primary schooling than most black South Africans. This has given them an advantage in obtaining jobs in township environments where unemployment can approach 50 percent.
In some countries, xenophobia is tacitly condoned by the government as a way of deflecting opposition. This is not the case in South Africa. The government, the opposition, the media, and the South African establishment across racial lines has uniformly condemned the xenophobia. In many of the townships the local populations are divided, with many local residents seeking to protect immigrants, and there have been public protests against xenophobia. The government regards the violence against foreigners as criminal, and the police have made arrests. The authorities will likely bring the current wave of xenophobic violence under control. But, in so far as xenophobic violence is a manifestation of South Africa’s social and economic ills, it is likely to flare up again.