Xenophobia and party politics in South Africa

All political parties in South Africa try to mobilize voters based on their and voters' xenophobia and they're outdoing each other with an election scheduled for 2019.

Street market in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Image credit Joonas Lyytinen via Wikimedia commons.

With the campaigning for the 2019 national elections gripping South African politics, all kinds of xenophobic statements are uttered by most political parties who see anti-immigrant, xenophobic and Afrophobic rhetoric as a way to attract votes. Through blatant lies, othering and scaremongering, foreigners are blamed for many of South Africa’s woes and social ills. All political parties are guilty.

In a society where violence against foreign nationals is pervasive and xenophobic sentiments are common, irresponsible leaders continue to manufacture an atmosphere of crisis. Politicians claim that foreigners are flooding South Africa and undermining country’s security, stability and prosperity. Yet, according to the 2011 census, South Africa isn’t overwhelmed with immigrants, with some 2.2 million international migrants (about 4% of the population) in the country in 2011. Stats SA Community Survey 2016 puts the number of foreign born people at 1.6 million, out of the population of 55 million at the time. While there are a number of methodological issues with the Stats SA Community Survey, it would not be surprising if this figure is correct, especially as the Department of Home Affairs has deported close to 400,000 foreign nationals since 2012.

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. More than half of the population lives in poverty. The inequality and hardships experienced by the majority of South Africans are rooted in the country’s colonial and apartheid racist legacy, as well as the post-1994 failures to transform the economy and society. Yet, listening to many politicians one gets the impression it’s all the immigrants’ fault.

Both the African National Congress-led government and the Democratic Alliance want to build higher fences at the border to prevent foreigners from coming in and undermining South Africa’s socio-economic development and security. Politicians claim that foreigners are the main reason for high crime rates; immigrants are blamed for the hardships experienced by poor South Africans and for overrunning South Africa’s cities.

In 2017, South Africa’s deputy police minister claimed that the city of Johannesburg was taken over by foreigners, with 80% of the city controlled by them. If this is not urgently stopped, he added, the entire country “could be 80% dominated by foreign nationals and the future president of South Africa could be a foreign national.” The mayor of Johannesburg often speaks about “our people” and “those people” (the foreigners) who make South Africa into a “lawless society.” The Economic Freedom Fighters has questioned whether those born outside the country—even  the people born abroad to South African parents—can ever be trusted or regarded as “proper South Africans.”

While speaking about their plans to run a coalition government on the national level if they get enough votes in 2019, the Democratic Alliance, COPE and the right-wing Freedom Front Plus promised to place foreigners in camps rather than letting them roam free in South African cities. The African Basic Movement, a newly registered political party, has called for all foreigners to leave South Africa by the end of 2018. The party claims that foreigners plan to take over the country in a few years and thus must be stopped by any means. They also want to make it illegal for foreigners to marry South African citizens.

The Democratic Alliance is approaching the next year’s elections with a new nationalistic slogan “All South Africans First.” As an editorial in the Mail & Guardian recently pointed out, this slogan is “pandering to a sentiment among South Africans that others poor immigrants.” This is nothing but “an attempt to co-opt the nationalism [and anti-immigrant rhetoric] so in vogue in much of the rest of the world right now.”

None of this anti-immigrant rhetoric is based on evidence. The research shows that immigrants don’t steal jobs from South Africans and that foreigners are not responsible for high levels of crime. The majority of foreign nationals also don’t receive any support from the government, such as social grants, and have to fend for themselves for survival. But facts don’t seem to matter in South African politics. Why would politicians choose to face the rightful anger millions of poor and hopeless South Africans when they can revert to anti-immigrant rhetoric and shift blame to those who have no voice, the people who make up between three to four percent of the population?

If, or rather when xenophobic violence explodes and immigrants are beaten, displaced, tortured, killed and/or burned alive, while their property and possessions are looted—as has happened many times in the past—the politicians will say this has nothing to do with xenophobia. It’s just criminality. The politicians will take no responsibility for fueling xenophobic sentiment. Denialism will be the order of the day.

While the opposition parties spout xenophobic rhetoric and bigotry, the African National Congress-led government has already developed and approved anti-poor and anti-African immigration plans. The government sees poor and unskilled African migrants and asylum seekers as threats to country’s security and prosperity. The White Paper on International Migration, approved by the government in March 2017, separates immigrants into “worthy” and “unworthy” individuals. Foreigners who have skills and money are welcome to come to the country and can stay in South Africa permanently. Poor and unskilled immigrants, who are predominantly from the African continent, will be prevented from coming to and staying in South Africa by any means, “even if this is labelled anti-African behavior,”  as the former Minister of Home Affairs, Hlengiwe Mkhize, pointed out in June 2017.

The immigration debate in South Africa is framed around whether foreigners can benefit the economy. Separating immigrants into those who can contribute to country’s economy and those who can’t is rooted in racist, white supremacist, classist and ableist thinking. Thus, South Africa’s new immigration policy mirrors the United States, Australia and much of Western Europe.  Only the exceptional, privileged, skilled, productive and well-off are welcome. The unworthy, from shithole countries will be denied access.

One of the most controversial aspects of the White Paper on International Migration is the plan to establish asylum seeker processing centers. These centers will be used for detention of asylum seekers while their applications are being processed by the South African authorities. The use of blanket detention to manage international migration would be in breach of the South African Constitution.

South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, recently strongly rejected the proposals to build detention centers for African migrants in North Africa aimed at curbing migration to Europe. Ramaphosa said that this is “akin to creating prisons for the people of our continent and I can’t see how African leaders can accede to that.” Yet, his government plans to follow similar proposals.

It is important to remember that the large majority of those who reject or dislike foreigners in South Africa are anti-black immigrant and Afrophobic. White foreigners and immigrants don’t experience xenophobia in South Africa. It is reserved mainly for poor black foreigners from the African continent.

Xenophobic and Afrophobic bigotry remains the order of the day in the “Rainbow Nation” and is likely to get uglier as the electioneering heats up. We will continue to hear the politicians put the blame on foreign migrants, asylum seekers and refugees for many of the social ills and hardships experienced by the majority of South Africans. One would expect better of the country’s political leadership, but South Africa isn’t there yet.

Further Reading