XENOPHOBIC sentiment has reared its ugly head again in South Africa, with stores looted, buildings set aflame, and people being attacked on the streets of Pretoria “just for looking foreign”, IRIN reports.
A group calling itself The Mamelodi Concerned Residents marched in the capital Pretoria last week to protest against African immigrants in South Africa; armed police had to break upprotests. Nigerians in particular were targeted in this wave of attacks, and Nigeria is now calling on the African Union to get involved to stamp out the xenophobic fervour.
Anti-immigrant attacks are not new in South Africa. Bloody anti-immigrant riots in 2008 left scores dead and thousands displaced. More recently, in 2015, seven people were killed after an angry mob wielding makeshift weapons attacked immigrants and torched buildings on the streets of Johannesburg. A similar riot broke out in Durban the same year, leaving five dead and causing thousands of foreigners to flee.
But, as IRIN’s Africa Editor Obi Anyadike explained at the time, xenophobia doesn’t exist in isolation. South Africa’s unemployment rate is at a near-record high, and many are falling victim to the perception that the country is becoming overrun with immigrants who are all taking their jobs.
The organisers of the recentanti-immigrants march are not the only ones blaming foreign nationals for crime and stealing jobs. In December, Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba made some reckless public statements blaming illegal immigrants for crime and calling on them to leave the city.
According to research from the Southern African Migration Programme, xenophobic sentiment is deep in the South African psyche, and is held widely across age, income and race groups.
The study found that South Africa “exhibits levels of intolerance and hostility to outsiders unlike virtually anything seen in other parts of the world.”
South Africans are the least disposed globally to migrants coming from other countries to engage in economic activity, and they believe the vast majority of migrants are in the country illegally.
Close to two-thirds support for deportation of those who test HIV positive or have AIDS, and migrants who come alone without their families, and for electrification of the country’s borders.
SAMP asked South Africans how likely they would be to take part in collective action against the presence of migrants and found 25% were likely to prevent a migrant from operating a business in their area. The survey results revealed that around one in every ten South Africans was predisposed to turn hostile attitudes into violent actions.
This may seem a relatively low proportion in light of the prevalence of negative attitudes, but multiplied, it suggests that 3.8 million (out of an adult population of around 35 million) South Africans would be prepared to use violent means to rid their neighbourhoods of foreign migrants, the SAMP data shows.
True, South Africa is a sought-after destination for many fleeing conflict and economic hardship elsewhere in the continent. But research shows that foreign migrants are net contributors to the economy and that the numbers of those born abroad has declined anyway.
To combat xenophobia, police and the government need to publicly acknowledge that ongoing attacks on foreign nationals and their property are xenophobic and then take decisive action, a statement by Human Rights Watch urges. This should include ensuring proper police investigations of xenophobic crimes and holding those responsible to account.