Lovemore Chikova Assistant Editor
South Africa will be taking over the African Union (AU) chair in February next year, a position important to shape the future of the continent and its developmental agenda.
The assumption of the AU top post will once again cast the limelight on South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
It is a fact that for South Africa to succeed in its new role, the region must ensure there are no distractions that can divert focus from the bigger goal of effectively serving the AU.
And one of the distractions that has been afflicting the SADC region is xenophobia, which of late has been a recurrent occurrence in South Africa.
That xenophobia has given South Africa a bad name on the continent cannot be disputed.
Many African countries are of the opinion that attacks on foreigners in South Africa are not justified, despite whatever reason given for the vice.
But xenophobia is not a problem for South Africa alone, it is indeed a headache for the entire SADC region, meaning other SADC member states have a big role to play to ensure it does not recur.
A recent week-long tour of South Africa by journalists from a number of African countries showed there are problems with regards social cohesion and the matrix around xenophobia.
South Africa and the entire SADC region are also faced with complicated migration issues.
South Africa has been a divided nation since whites arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, signalling the beginning of the colonisation of the vast territory.
As the whites started dominating the country, they introduced the apartheid system which caused resentment among the locals.
South Africa’s Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection researcher Dr Oscar van Heerden believes this flawed system might have helped sow the seeds of resentment for foreigners, which is manifesting now, but in a much more brutal manner.
The apartheid regime’s unjustified laws marginalised the locals, ensuring they continued to feel disadvantaged even after the country attained democracy in 1994.
But what should be borne in mind is that during the apartheid era, the influx of foreigners, especially from SADC countries was the norm, as it is up to this day.
Although there are no figures with regards to the number of foreigners living in South Africa, it is estimated that there are millions of such people, some literally living on the streets.
Foreigners from countries such as Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho and Swaziland started trooping to South Africa in search of fortune long back.
In fact, there is a wide view in research and historical circles that South African big cities such as Johannesburg were built on the back of the labour provided by migrants from countries in the SADC region.
South Africa’s dilemma
After the attainment of democracy in 1994, South Africa opened up its borders to its neighbours in the region, resulting in the influx of both legal and illegal migrants.
Director general for the Department of Home Affairs Mr Thulani Mavuso said in some cases, the new government had to pull down electrical fences along the borders in the spirit of the new-found freedom.
The fences had been erected by the white regime to deter liberation war fighters from crossing into the country.
The country has more than 4 000 kilometres of the land border line with Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, eSwatini, Botswana and Namibia, and more than 3 000 kilometres of the sea coastline.
But it seems South Africa is now caught up in a dilemma, as some people from the SADC region are taking advantage of the laxity at the border lines to illegally cross into the country.
The country faces a number of challenges with its immigration such as the porous borders mentioned above, small inspectorate capacity and limited deportation budget, economic consequences such as unemployment and unregulated trade, social unrest, which includes xenophobia, and insecurity, according to Mr Mavuso.
The great denial
Instead of xenophobia, South African authorities prefer to call it social conflict caused by the everyday struggles that face many South Africans like unemployment, low levels of service delivery and the prevalence of crimes such as drug dealing, theft and fraud.
Government Communication and Information System acting director-general Phumla Williams told the African journalists that although the attacks on foreigners were not justified, South Africans were not entirely xenophobic.
“We do not entirely think that this is xenophobia, and this is why we emphasise on social cohesion since these attacks are a result of a social conflict,” she said.
“But it is bad for anyone to burn another person’s shop or attack them simply because they are disgruntled. It is not justified.”
Williams believes the media has been blowing small incidents of social conflict into big xenophobia stories.
Mr Mavuso said the attacks are “social unrest which the media terms xenophobia”.
“There is this issue of sponsored xenophobia,” he said. “How can it be that people can term social unrest as xenophobia. The media must not run with the story without checking facts.
“You need to tell the people to stop violating laws. We have young children being drugged by foreigners, young girls being taken into prostitution, people causing violence and these are some of the things that trigger the attacks.”
Dr van Heerden argues that not all South Africans are xenophobic.
“Some say xenophobia is a criminality,” he said. “Another person says xenophobia is there, and another says there is nothing like xenophobia in South Africa.
“We have porous borders and undocumented people, especially those from the SADC region, have been coming in and their large numbers threaten to cause instability.”
Dr van Heerden said there was a generation of South Africans which did not share the solidarity sentiments emanating from the liberation struggle when many South Africans left the country to seek refuge in fellow regional countries.
“There is this narrative that South Africans are not grateful for the help they received from other countries, especially those from the SADC region. But we have lots of South Africans who have never interacted with the rest of Africa. These do not give attention to this narrative and they are not even aware of its significance.”
Problems of denial
Denying the existence of xenophobia has the consequences of masking the schism that is growing between ordinary South Africans and foreigners living in that country.
This also leads to a lethargic approach on the part of authorities in addressing the underlying causes of such hatred of foreigners by South Africans, who in most cases think that they are losing their jobs and luxuries of life to outsiders.
This raises the need for the South African government to address the fundamentals that have resulted in its citizens resenting the presence of fellow Africans.
It is important that someone takes responsibility for stamping out xenophobia, but this starts with acknowledging that the South African society needs to refocus the way it views foreigners.
SADC and xenophobia
This brings us to the interlink between SADC countries and South Africa that cannot be easily wished away despite the existence of xenophobia.
In fact, xenophobia is a threat to regional peace and security in the SADC region, as its continued practice has the potential to lead to a wider conflict.
The bond that exists in the SADC region in terms of economic, social and political integration is based on the social cohesion that exists among citizens of the different countries.
In light of the importance of South Africa as a major trading partner for all countries in the region, xenophobic attacks can no longer remain confined as a South African problem.
It has since morphed into a regional issue that needs urgent attention by all member States to ensure that its causes are addressed.
At least 60 people were killed and more than 500 000 others internally displaced during xenophobic attacks in 2008, this was followed by another attack which claimed seven lives in 2015.
But the latest bout of xenophobic attacks that took place in September this year brought in a new dimension which left many with unexplained questions.
At least 12 people were killed in September, but 10 of them were South Africans.
It seems this has emboldened the South African authorities into concluding that the attacks are simply not confined to the xenophobia narrative.
But it is the outrage from SADC countries that caught the eye, as the region made it clear that the xenophobic attacks were no longer tolerated.
SADC executive secretary Dr Stergomena Lawrence Tax said the attacks were inhuman.
Chairperson of the SADC Organ on Defence and Security Co-operation President Mnangagwa strongly condemned “all forms of hate-driven violence and applaud the South African authorities for the swift way they have responded”.
Zambia President Edgar Lungu, who had just relinquished the organ’s chair to President Mnangagwa when the xenophobic attacks broke out, called on SADC and the African Union to intervene and prevent the conflict from becoming full blown.
To indicate how xenophobia is resented in the region, Zambia withdrew its senior national soccer team from a friendly match in protest.
The attacks in September took place at the same time South Africa was hosting the World Economic Forum, prompting leaders from SADC countries like Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia to boycott the event.
SADC as a bloc and as individual member countries can play an important role in ending xenophobic attacks in South Africa, considering most of the victims come from the region.
The major pull factor for foreigners to South Africa appears to be the search for employment, and the seemingly huge opportunities that the country provides.
It is a fact that most SADC countries are plagued by the scourge of lack of jobs, poverty and uncertainty.
Add to this the frequent droughts that have been hitting the SADC region.
As a result of these social ills, many people in other countries view South Africa as the gateway to end their predicament.
Given the above scenarios, fellow SADC states have a bigger role in ensuring that they limit the appetite by their citizens to flood South Africa in search of a better life.
The best way to address this is for governments in the region to promote sustainable and equitable economic growth in their countries to ensure their citizens are well catered for.
Addressing the driving forces of immigration to South Africa requires that each country in the SADC region adopts economic development programmes that lead to poverty alleviation.
Democracy, peace and security should be enhanced to ensure that people feel safe in their countries and do not need to migrate.
SADC countries should get it right by creating conditions that reduce the migration of their citizens to South Africa, thereby limiting the chances of them being victimised.
Sunny Side (Tambotie Flats)
This is an area in Pretoria dominated by foreigners from countries across the continent. It is a true mixed bag of people from various nations.
On the surface, the area is a hive of activity, as people go about their businesses, mostly corner shops and hair salons.
But South African authorities believe that beneath this state of affairs, the area is an epicentre of various crimes from violent ones to the petty.
It is not clear how foreigners ended up taking over such a vast area, especially considering that it is not a refugee camp.
A Zimbabwean lady who identified herself as Vimbai from Masvingo said Sunny Side was the best place to live for a foreigner.
“It is the safest when it comes to xenophobia,” she said. “No South African dares come to this place and do what they please.”
Victor Akwesi from Ghana said whenever there is an outbreak of xenophobia, the foreigners implement various strategies to ensure they are ready to fight back.
“We are always prepared to defend ourselves against this evil thing called xenophobia because it is totally unjustified,” he said.
“Africans are one and there is no need to attack each other. There are lots of South Africans living in other countries and they are not being attacked.”
Harry Kapesa from Malawi believes some South Africans label foreigners as criminals to divert attention from their own problems.
“They accuse us of taking away their jobs and taking away their women, but in most cases this is meant to cover up for the warped views of some South Africans on life,” he said.
“These people tend to shun some jobs which they think are inferior, when we come here and take those jobs they turn around and accuse us of raiding their job market. This approach is not good at all. Our desire is to live peacefully side by side with our hosts.”
The way forward
It is clear that South Africa has underlying issues that need urgent attention to ensure the causes of conflict are eliminated.
But the solutions could be both internal and external.
Internally, it is important that the authorities acknowledge that presence of issues like unemployment, a high crime rate and the presence of the twin evils of drug dealing and prostitution, including child prostitution.
There are lot of social ills that confront the modern South Africa, and these have prepared the ground for conflicts like xenophobia.
Externally, other African countries, especially those from the SADC region, must start re-examining their policies which are being blamed for driving their citizens to South Africa.
United Nations High Commission for Refugees senior protection officer in South Africa Kiran Kaur said South Africans, including the ordinary people, should promote social cohesion.
“When a refugee comes and they go through the processes, they are allowed to integrate in society and we promote social cohesion,” she said.
“They can go to the township and operate a tuck shop and this calls for tolerance among the local population.”
Apart from social cohesion, there are broader issues that need to be dealt with to bring a feeling of equality among South Africans.
These include addressing socio-economic issues, ensuring access to education for everyone and debunking the misinformation that has often flared up tempers.
The media’s role also comes under the spotlight as authorities believe some of the violence is ignited by unverified stories that come from even the authentic media outlets.