Xenophobic Impact on Business & Socio-economic – A Conundrum to South Africa

cash4wealthAttacks on foreigners by socio-economically deprived citizens, squeezed by the realities of global migration, are an indictment on the government, writes Susan Booysen.

Johannesburg – The government was being held to ransom this week – caught in a grip between morally indefensible xenophobia, global migration and acknowledging that grassroots feelings against foreigners, largely African, have roots in the dented dream of democracy.

An escalation of ongoing xenophobia since 2008, rather than a new outbreak, the week’s anti-foreigner events held up a mirror for South Africans and their government. The events were a microcosm of much that has gone wrong in the globally-linked democratic South Africa and reflected uncomfortable realities of citizen reaction to having lost both the 1994 ideal and the trust that the government will make things right.

By this weekend, the spread of Afro-xenophobic attacks around the country indicted the perpetrators. These citizens suffer socio-economic deprivation and relate their real or imagined experiences of disrespect and deficits to their inability to compete with foreigners.

They are squeezed by the harsh realities of global migration, while they are still clutching at the fruits of their national liberation.

The outbreaks reminded us that many community protests include criminals who loot because they can. Chances are, they will not be brought to book because communities shield them, police look on, release follows arrest.

Even more, the week brought evidence of marauding mobs hungry for violent confrontation – also with those who denounce xenophobia. The dishonour, however, extends beyond these underclasses to the middle classes, who live aloof from the suffering that comes with ongoing poverty and emasculation in the race for scarce resources.

The week’s events were inescapably also an indictment of the government. To be sure, it gave a formidable display of what can be done if political will arrives. The week’s concerted government actions and declarations contrasted with non-existent government repertoires when xenophobic cases of the past six years had been swept under the community protest carpet.

The chickens of the de facto policy of open borders came home to roost. The president’s parliamentary announcement of sharper border control confirmed the prevailing policy failure (besides appearing as using a teaspoon to stem a tide).

In place of feeble responses, the government this week delivered two presidential interventions, the security cluster stepped in and specific ministers launched reprimands, anti-xenophobic campaigns and deployed more police and other security forces. There was heightened humanitarian action and refugee (née displacement) centres sprang up.

The ANC, Cosatu and SACP issued statements and held briefings to condemn killing and looting.

The government met ambassadors of countries whose citizens were affected.

If this hive of activity had been unfolding regularly in the past six years, South Africa might have escaped much of the embarrassment of being a contender for skunk of the year. There was a display of leadership, even if Parliament, the cabinet and the president might have little standing with the perpetrators.


Of course, not all of this week’s government actions were exemplary. Feeble rhetoric repeated itself. Criminality and national disgrace became “unacceptable”, rather than “morally reprehensible”.

King Goodwill Zwelithini got unparalleled kid-glove treatment. President Jacob Zuma reinforced national liberation rhetoric in relating how the ANC was treated generously when in exile but ignored that, in political struggle days, it was governments hosting the ANC – its leaders often resided in middle-class suburbs, commanding their members who were in out-of-the-way camps, often being supported by the international community.

The government was silent on the fact that the xenophobic violence displaces blame for socio-economic deprivation. While African “foreigners” are blamed for at least some of the social ills permeating township and informal settlement life, including health, educational and social service infrastructure, the ANC government is apportioned less of the blame.

The middle class, generally white citizens specifically, and the ruling class obviously, benefit from blame displacement. It is foreigners’ shops that go shutters-up, not the Johannesburg Stock Exchange or Umhlanga’s Gateway Mall.

Middle-class life in South Africa continued unaffected, while the underclasses were fighting it out, except that their underpaid Zimbabwean waiters and gardeners might be on the run.

The ruling class obviously suffers being shamed by fellow African governments and embarrassed by social media rumours that everybody from Boko Haram to Renamo’s Afonso Dhlakama are set to launch rescue missions.

The ANC government obviously does not “design” its policy of open borders with a view to getting paperless foreigners to come and help share blame for delivery deficits. But it is certainly one of the de facto effects of the policy of limited control of immigration from African countries.

This is besides the fact that the influx and the added stress on social services strain the fiscus, from which the ANC government then suffers. Meanwhile, cheap and docile (fearing deportation) labour helps capital.

Afro-patriotic, pan-Africanist and universalist rhetoric flowed to try to subdue xenophobic bouts in which the Afrophobia seemed to include shopkeepers, traders and other small-business operators from the Indian subcontinent, those who operate in the physical world of the underclasses.

Zuma noted that “we cannot accept that when there are challenges, we then use violence, particularly to our brothers and sisters from the continent”. ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize reminded South Africans “we are all children of Africa”. The thought lingered that had the 2008 perpetrators been arrested and charged, the xenophobia label would not have been sticking so well. The soothing words would have had gravitas.

By all appearances, the government lacks the will to reverse the influx of foreign citizens. As much as its management is out of control, the problem is likely to have become irreversible.

From a policy perspective, the vexing question is, why does South Africa maintain open borders to citizens from Africa? Is it selective enforcement of both border and immigration control and law enforcement? Is it lack of capacity and ineptitude?

Foreigners get absorbed into the national social-services network while they trade, operate small businesses or, on the darker side of life and alongside many South African counterparts, thrive on crime.

There is a lumpen-proletariat underworld in which life is cheap, and xenophobia is but one expression of the laws of that world.

The government has lost authority over vast tracks of South Africa, over the underworld where xenophobia, looting and parading mobs rule. Research at the time of the 2008 outbreaks pointed to an anarchic world, with its own priorities and competing elusive power structures. From high-level bribes and huge drug deals to usurious microloans and coercive local political systems, it runs parallel to anything official, democratic and constitutionally legitimate.

The small miracle of the week is that concerted action led to the violence and looting being subdued.

This week’s xenophobia was a case of two-sided lawlessness: foreigners unofficially entering and drawing on South African social infrastructure plus lawlessness in terms of seeking real or imagined revenge, looting and killing by a minority substantial enough to earn South Africa scoundrel status around the world.

Lawfulness still has a modest edge over lawlessness in South Africa, even if much of society – middle classes included – often display a wonderfully lawless side.

This lawlessness has roots in the fact that the constitution’s Bill of Rights offers no absolute guarantees. It is a “law” that does not dictate. There follows a legal system that functions at some levels, but often not at all, and a system of policing in which citizens do not trust their “protection officers”.

Or, think of a Human Rights Commission that this week found a little voice again to pronounce on xenophobia but has been largely silent on the personal and systemic devastation that poverty and unemployment wreak in South Africa.

This all unfolds under the watch of a government that proclaims that tolerance of foreign citizens is part of paying back to our continental brothers and sisters for their part in the liberation struggle… forgetting for a moment that neither Zimbabwe nor Somalia helped much; Mozambique and Ethiopia did. This motivation nevertheless helps the ANC prolong the legacy of the liberation struggle, increasingly its predominant lever on legitimacy.

Alternatively, it could very well be a case of the government not having the authority and capacity to correct the situation to ensure that a lawful, law-abiding South Africa takes shape. South Africa’s struggling but comparatively big economy is a capitalist magnet and “informal foreigners” have even become employers of note.

South Africa’s tides of April exposed the extent to which its “battle for economic liberation” unfolds in the firm grip of global economic migration, flights of repression and chaos, and a national government that strains to try to gain control.

* Booysen is professor at the Wits School of Governance.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Cash4wealth Blog.

Courtesy: The Sunday Independent

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