Seven of the biggest myths about South Africa and xenophobia - and how they drive attacks

Studies have found S. Africa exhibits levels of intolerance and hostility to outsiders unlike virtually anything seen in other parts of the world.

SOUTH Africa has in recent days been in the eye of an international storm, after attacks against foreign nationals mainly of African origin.

The most recent violence is widely blamed on Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, who last month said immigrants were responsible for rising crime and demanded that they leave the country - an outburst that was followed by the spate of attacks that left seven dead and thousands displaced.

The king, who has no official power but still commands loyalty among some 10 million Zulu people, on Monday following intense pressure denied whipping up hatred—saying he had been misinterpreted—and condemned the violence as “shameful”.

But it was seen as too late, even as South Africa deployed soldiers to the violence-hit townships in the cities of Johannesburg and Durban.

The attacks have been blamed on a range of causes, but as analysts and researchers have found, most are based on perception that is unsupported by the reality—a situation  tacitly perpetuated by politicians seeking to deflect criticism from themselves.

We look at seven of the most prevalent:  

1: That the anti-foreigner sentiment is recent

Immigration into South Africa has been a simmering issue. In 2003 president Thabo Mbeki, in an unprecedented step took one of his own cabinet members, the Home Affairs minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi, to court over controversial regulations that had been eight years in the making and which were meant to tighten immigration.

Buthelezi’s rules essentially focused on attracting big business, extremely well-heeled foreign nationals, and international professionals. But they also had the effect of making it extremely difficult for poor immigrants, small traders and jobseekers—the majority of the people who enter South Africa— to enter legally, while it also left thousands of others in limbo, setting the stage for their near-criminalisation by the government.

At their enactment, the NGO Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) also noted that the law placed an “unacceptably high burden on enforcement agencies such as the police and immigration authorities” who now had arbitrary “search and seize” powers if there were grounds to believe that a person was not South African.

The SA Human Rights Commission in 2003 said that while the language of the new law tried to curb xenophobia, it had the effect of promoting it by giving the impression that South Africa was being “bombarded by foreigners”. It is a perception that has never been successfully reversed, and by the time the Zimbabwe crisis of 2008 came along, the die had long been cast. 

Essentially, South Africa’s problem is not so much a porous border but a bureaucracy that exists to discourage legal access.

2: That South Africa is overwhelmed by foreigners

How many foreign immigrants are there in South Africa? Many analysts posit that it depends on who you ask, and their political persuasion.

As far back as 1998 the department of Home Affairs claimed there were up to five million illegal immigrants in South Africa.

This figure reigned supreme for years, quoted liberally by politicians and further reinforced by the publicly funded Human Sciences Research Council, which claimed between four to eight million undocumented migrants. The Council, under the spotlight, withdrew its figure.

Statistics South Africa’s official estimate is now of 500,000 to one million undocumented migrants, a far smaller figure than believed but one that gets little play in South African conversations.

The Forced Migration Studies Programme at Wits University has between 1.6 million and two million immigrants, both registered and unregistered, making up between 3-4% of South Africa’s total population. Migrants in the United States make up 11% of its population, and nears 80% in the UAE.

Another related claim has been that South Africa now accounts for the biggest influx of migrants in the world outside the EU. But 2013  data from the Migration Policy Institute, extrapolated back to 1960 shows the country is the 23rd most popular destination globally, with Cote d’Ivoire the most popular African destination.

Pew Research Centre also  tallied that in 2013, some 2.4 million people living in South Africa were born in other countries—including over 300,000 from the UK—the fourth largest origin country after Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Lesotho.

SOURCE: Southern African Migration Project

3: That poverty is the cause of the xenophobic violence

The underlying claim is that being poor predisposes one to violence. But the Helen Suzman Foundation in a  recent illuminating research says that violence cannot be framed entirely in terms of deprivation.

“Poverty does not necessarily lead to violence—to say so is an unfair prejudice to all those fighting poverty each day, particularly those who do not turn against their neighbours but leverage their strength and fight together,” says researcher Joshua Hovsha.

There is certainly a link between poverty and violence—many making the effort to improve their lives are daily preyed upon—by criminals, unscrupulous business owners, and even authorities, but a more significant trigger is inequality and the failure of the elite to nurture inclusive growth.

The problem also is political, where local power struggles play a significant role, and of enforcement of the rule of law. Foreigners are the most vulnerable to exploitation, and consequently the most exposed to attack in the battle for local influence. And with municipal elections in South Africa on the horizon next year, these tensions will likely get worse.

What it is not is a linear relationship. Writing in the Journal of Peace Research, Harvard University’s Amartya Sen  says that “approaches to explaining violence should avoid isolationist programmes that explain violence solely in terms of social inequality and deprivation or in terms of identity and cultural factors.”

4: That immigrants compete with locals for scarce resources

The conversation around this has centred on foreign nationals taking up scarce jobs, amenities and business opportunities, in a country with an official 24% unemployment rate, and twice that for the younger population.    

It is also defended by the statistic that a fifth of the population of 54 million survive on less than 335 rand ($28) a month. When you add in the failed apartheid plan of co-option to stave off popular uprising, but which foundered on the weakness of the migrant labour system and bred instability in the townships—referred to as a “crisis of social reproduction” where the transfer of culture, knowledge and power was limited and consequently reduced opportunity—you have potent discontent easily released at “outsiders”.

Dr Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics drew a connection between high unemployment rates and the inability to recreate the basic elements of traditional households—today just three of 10 South African adults are married—the Foundation said.

But this underlying sentiment is flawed, says Hovsha, highlighting what economists call the “lump of labour fallacy”. This is the belief that there is only so much work and pay available in an economy. Therefore, “any benefit gained by a foreigner is seen to be directly taken from the resources available to local citizens.”

“It isn’t true. Foreign additions to South African human capital and entrepreneurial energy create new opportunities,” Hovsha says. 

In reality, immigration increases the size and structure of the economy, thus creating more jobs. In addition—96% of the country’s working population  are South African.

5: That immigrants commit most crime.

The popular sentiment is that because of the nature of illegal immigration, emboldened foreign nationals commit crime and cannot be traced because they just do not have a return address.

In a  paper released last year, the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders found that just just 4% of South Africa’s total sentenced population in prisons were foreign nationals.

“There is an anecdotal belief that many people committing offences in South Africa are foreigners…unless it is the case that, for some reason, foreign nationals are committing offences that do not result in incarceration, it appears that this anecdotal belief is unfounded,” the Institute said.

The paper also found that 79% of those in South African prisons were black, compared to just 2% of whites, 1% of Asians and 18% of coloureds.  This was attributed to a result of relatively better socio-economic circumstances and life opportunities for the minorities, suggesting that the South African government needs to look inwards at its policies for answers to crime.

6: Immigrants hoard trade skills and isolate themselves

South Africa’s Minister of Small Business Development, Lindiwe Zulu, while defending the weak government response towards the xenophobic attacks in Johannesburg early in the year said it was incumbent on foreign shopkeepers “to share their trade secrets”.

“Foreigners need to understand that they are here as a courtesy and our priority is to the people of this country first and foremost. A platform is needed for business owners to communicate and share ideas. They cannot barricade themselves in and not share their practices with local business owners,” she said, later adding in a context of South African’s historical exclusion from the economy.

This holds two fallacies—that foreign nationals have more skills by choice, rather than borne of an entrepreneurial drive to succeed informed by the desperate struggle to surmount the odds away from their homelands. Somalia for example remains a broken country with little schooling of any nature, while Ethiopia is one of the most state-controlled economies on the continent—freewheeling enterprise there is still fledgling.

Essentially, migrants are inherently enterprising—if they were not they would not seek to move. “They — or at least those targeted by xenophobia — typically arrive without capital, locally recognised skills or access to local sources of income, employment and finance,”  Leon Louw, the executive director of the Free Market Foundation, said, in an  analysis in the Business Day.

Additionally, they must also beat the protectionist hurdle that is the state, which has various regulatory and policing responses that  seek to disadvantage, if not eliminate, migrant entrepreneurship.

The second is that foreign nationals barricade themselves in. The attacks in South Africa have not been targeted at isolated and closed groups living separately, but at neighbours dispersed throughout communities—a trend observed by the Wits University’s Forced Migration Studies programme even in 2008, when the worst attacks occurred, which left at least 62 dead.

One displaced migrant, Malawian Agnes Salanje, this week  told of how the marauding mobs combed communities looking for outsiders.

“We could have been killed as these South Africans hunted for foreigners, going from door to door,” Salanje, who was a domestic worker in the Indian Ocean port city of Durban, told news wire AFP. She said she escaped the attackers after being “tipped off by a good neighbour and we ran to a mosque to seek shelter.”

7: That South Africans are not generally xenophobic 

Following the harsh criticism from other African countries that followed the Durban attacks, Pretoria—and a majority of South Africans on social media—were at pains to stress that they were not “generally” xenophobic. 

They are. At least  according to research by the Southern African Migration Programme, which in a policy brief in 2009 drew on surveys done on the topic since the 1990s. The findings were harsh: despite its multinationals fanning out across the continent, the  independent World Values Survey has consistently shown that South Africans are the least disposed globally to migrants coming from other countries to engage in economic activity, and that they believe the vast majority are in the country illegally. 

An  earlier study by the SAMP following the 2008 attacks referred to a national survey it carried out. It found that “South Africa exhibits levels of intolerance and hostility to outsiders unlike virtually anything seen in other parts of the world”. The majority of the findings are simply astonishing—including 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 countries borders. This was despite greater interaction with non-nationals—and shared across the racial divide. Four years later, attitudes had softened, but just.

The SAMP made wide-reaching recommendations, including the vigorous persecution, information campaigns about xenophobia, political action, and a better informed media. Failure to this and a “repetition of May 2008 is almost inevitable.” 


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