This year’s xenophobic attacks in South Africa come with a positive vista – a rare opportunity for African leaders to come together to exterminate a common enemy. Olawale Olaleye writes
How do you even imagine or playback a sudden resort to unprovoked violence that not only claimed several innocent lives, but also killed businesses in the region of billions in the name of xenophobia?
That people, who had been grateful for witnessing the breaking of a new day, went to work in search of their daily bread but could not make it back home, because some people thought they were responsible for their misfortune without any proof to that effect other than sheer assumptions?
Perhaps, the time has come for African leaders to actually ponder the weight of the menace that xenophobia constitutes to the continent and make hard choices that would not just stem the tide, but completely exterminate this cankerworm.
Last week’s attacks on foreigners by South Africans, who claimed they had come to steal their jobs and render them ineffective was the height of insensate intolerance and hate by brothers against brothers.
Unfortunately, this development has seen governments move against one another over what could have been resolved locally were the current South African government really competent and not culpable through subtle instigation.
With the ugly turn of events and except reason prevails at the highest level, particularly considering what is at stake at the continental level, African leaders must quickly come together and agree on how to address this issue in the best way possible. Indeed, they must come up with lasting solutions that could see to the end of xenophobia.
But if the decisions so far taken in the heat of these attacks were to be factored into account, Africa’s fragile unity is the collateral damage.
For instance, after a delayed response, Nigeria last Wednesday launched a raft of diplomatic offensive against South Africa after weeks of quiet diplomacy failed to end the spate of xenophobic attacks allegedly on its citizens.
After drawing a red line it claimed would no longer allow South Africa to cross, Nigeria also called off its participation at the World Economic Forum (WEF), hosted by South Africa. Other Nigerians at their private levels also cut off engagements with the former apartheid country.
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who was initially billed to lead the Nigerian delegation to Cape Town, venue of the WEF, headed for Ghana instead to participated in the 2019 African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) in Accra.
In addition, Nigeria recalled its High Commissioner to South Africa, Ambassador Kabiru Bala, to come and give a situation report on the attacks, so it could help government take a firm decision on the matter.
Curiously, this time, Nigeria was not alone. The presidents of Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Malawi did not also attend the World Economic Forum in the face of the looting and burning of small businesses in South Africa owned largely by African immigrants.
Further to this, the chairman of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat condemned the attacks, while other reports claimed Zambia had also cancelled a friendly football match with South Africa’s national men’s team, Bafana Bafana scheduled for March.
All these coming in quick succession is not auspicious, either for South Africa or other African countries that were unhappy with the violence unleashed on their nationals with the South African government seemingly helpless if not culpable.
Sadly, xenophobia in South Africa has a long date with history, the reason the new age African leaders, must come together to review this social cancer threatening the unity of the continent and adopt a lasting solution that would make sure it does not resurface again under whatever guise.
Prior to 1994, Wikipedia records that, immigrants from elsewhere faced discrimination and even violence in South Africa. After majority rule in 1994, contrary to expectations, the incidence of xenophobia increased.
Between 2000 and March 2008, at least 67 people reportedly died in what were identified as xenophobic attacks. In May 2008, a series of attacks left 62 people dead, although 21 of those killed were South African citizens. The attacks were motivated by xenophobia, it was believed.
In 2015, another nationwide spike in xenophobic attacks against immigrants in general prompted a number of foreign governments to begin repatriating their citizens.
A Pew Research poll conducted in 2018 showed that 62% of South Africans viewed immigrants as a burden on society by taking jobs and social benefits and that 61% of South Africans thought that immigrants were more responsible for crime than other groups.
Between 2010 and 2017 the immigrant community in South Africa increased from 2 million people to 4 million people. But despite a lack of directly comparable data, xenophobia in South Africa is perceived to have significantly increased after the election of a Black majority government in 1994, a 2004 study published by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP), claimed.
According to the report, the ANC government – in its attempts to overcome the divides of the past and build new forms of social cohesion embarked on an aggressive and inclusive nation-building project.
One unanticipated by-product of the project, it was believed, has been a growth in intolerance towards outsiders. Violence against foreign citizens and African refugees has become increasingly common and communities have also been divided by hostility and suspicion.
The study was based on a citizen survey across member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and found South Africans expressing the harshest anti-immigrant sentiment, with 21% of South Africans in favour of a complete ban on foreign entry and 64% in favour of strict limitations on the numbers permitted.
By contrast, the next-highest proportion of respondents in favour of a complete ban on immigration was in neighbouring Namibia, and Botswana, at 10%.
The facts above therefore proves a compelling need for African leaders to project into the future and begin to see and analyse the danger that xenophobia constitutes to the future they are currently working towards.
But if they failed to stand together to address it now that the opportunity has availed itself, they may as well watch the effect of xenophobia destroy the otherwise feeble unity of the Africa of their dream to the waiting wings of the West.