This week was welcomed by news of a series of violent xenophobic attacks on black Africans, in South Africa. This is not the first incident of this nature to occur in South Africa, and it seems as though it is becoming an annual occurrence. The fact that these xenophobic attacks are taking place quite frequently, has forced many (South Africans and the international community) to dissect the root causes of these violent incidences, in a bid to understand why the xenophobic attacks keep occurring, and how to prevent its re-emergence.
Xenophobia or Afrophobia
Xenophobia is not a novel concept to the world. In fact, with the success of Brexit (where most ‘for’ voters voted on the basis of protecting nationalism by limiting the entry of immigrants into the UK) and the victory of Donald Trump (a vocally racist xenophobe), one could say that xenophobia and intolerance, is fast becoming a trendy way of life. However, the strain of xenophobia that afflicts our African borders can’t exactly be construed to be xenophobia, because the targets of the discrimination are hardly white or Asian foreign nationals, (or even black Americans or Europeans) but black African foreign nationals. Thus our continental problem is Afrophobia, rather than xenophobia.
Past and Contemporary South Africa
Contemporary South Africa was brought about after a series of wars in the 19th and 20th century – including the Boer wars – and a long spell of Apartheid, which formally came to an end in 1994, when Nelson Mandela began his tenure as the first black president of South Africa. The contemporary South Africa that we see today, is a colourful mixture of different racial groups; a top rated emerging economy; (arguably) Africa’s most commercially developed nation; startlingly wide economic disparities; limited social mobility between the classes; a minority white populace that owns the majority of the country’s wealth and land; and a majority black populace that harbours decades of pent up frustration, which frequently manifests itself in misdirected anger.
It is no secret, (albeit an uncomfortable one) that South Africa’s advanced level of development and proximity to the Western world, may be largely attributed to white South Africans. Notwithstanding, the fact that black South Africans were structurally prevented from substantively and procedurally contributing to the development of South Africa, in the nation’s formative years, (due to Apartheid, marginalisation of people of colour and restricted social mobility for black South Africans) we have to call a spade a spade: South Africa is known as the ‘West’ of Africa, because of white South Africans. As African nations were attaining independence from the colonialists, white South Africans were creating their own little Europe in South Africa, while other African countries were aiding the black South Africans’ liberation movement in various ways, namely, financially, militarily and socially.
Black South African Selectivity and Isolation
Since 1994, it seems that these aforementioned aspects have been consigned to oblivion by black South Africans. This is something that is evident in all tiers of society, from the leadership level, to the upper, middle and lower classes. At the leadership level, we have seen how the South African government is quick to align itself with Western interests at the detriment of other African countries (ie. South Africa voting for the invasion of Libya). We are aware of the disregard South Africa has for the African Union and it’s proceedings; The South African delegation is often heedless to the rules set by the African Union, at the annual African Union Summit. At the upper and middle class level, we hear older South Africans using narratives of ‘them and us’ to refer to Africans. We hear younger South Africans jokingly stating that South Africa is not really Africa, and referring to other parts of Africa as ‘Africa’, while excluding South Africa from the ‘Africa’ category. In the lower classes, we see a reluctance of black South Africans to accept black African foreign nationals into their community; often embracing said foreign nationals with bouts of violence. The points being alluded to here are:
1. Black South Africans consciously isolate themselves from Africa, and even look at Africa and African foreign nationals, with a degree of superiority and disdain.
2. Although the violence being inflicted on African foreign nationals, was conducted largely by lower classes of black South Africans, Afrophobia is not exclusive to the lower classes.
A Superiority Complex Emanating From Inferiority
During the Apartheid regime, the ruling all white National Party, would impress on black South Africans, that they were better off than black people in the rest of Africa, thus creating a false sense of superiority through indoctrination. A false sense of superiority, that emanates from prolonged years of inferiority. During the tenure of the National Party, they attributed the proximity black South Africans had to whiteness and a Western way of life, to the superiority of black South Africans. This was ingrained in the minds of black South Africans and has sustained itself as a mindset, even in post-Apartheid South Africa. Despite the fact that black South Africans have gained political equality, they are yet to attain full economic equality, which has arguably maintained the ‘inferior’ standing of black South Africans, within present day South Africa. Thus, as the sense of inferiority continues to exist within black South African society, so does the false sense of superiority.
Afrophobic Attacks: A Social or Economic Issue?
It has been propounded by a number of social media commentators, that the issue of Afrophobic attacks, roots itself in a much broader economic issue. Black South Africans of a lower class, are constantly having their needs ignored, as the government continues to provide for increasing numbers of African foreign nationals. Resources are being stretched to accommodate South Africans and African foreign nationals, on a budget that can only comfortably accommodate a certain number of African foreign nationals. However, that number is currently being exceeded by the African foreign nationals resident in South Africa (both undocumented and documented). The argument is that, black South Africans of a lower class, are having to compete with African foreign nationals, for resources, opportunities and a better standard of living. Thus, it would be in South Africa’s best interest to implement stricter border controls, to limit the influx of African foreign nations, both documented and undocumented.
This is a reasonable line of reasoning, however it completely ignores and almost denies the reality and critical issues at stake. I proffer this for the following reasons:
- The economic frustration argument, suggests that Afrophobia is not the issue at stake. To categorize the Afrophobic attacks as an economic issue, is a complete denial of the fact that Afrophobia is a burning social issue, which was a factor leading up to the violence.
2. The line of reasoning refuses to acknowledge that the Afrophobic attacks, are a result of misdirected anger, that has unfortunately resulted in unprecedented brutality. While black South Africans are of the belief that African foreign nationals are taking what they are entitled to, government officials are authorizing millions of South African Rands in tenders, the issue of corruption is rampant, and the government is not seeing to the ever increasing economic disparities between the rich (predominantly white South Africans) and poor (predominantly black South Africans). Anyone of ordinary prudence would be able to attest to where the anger should be directed.
3. The aforementioned argument, infers that lower class black South Africans, are tired of competing for scraps, with African foreign nationals, of the same economic bracket. So let me put forward a hypothetical scenario: If South Africa were to successfully rid itself of African foreign nationals, and the black lower class South Africans finally attain the scraps they so violently fought for, what is the next step? Would they be content with these scraps? Of course not. They will always want more. With no African foreign nationals and the propensity of the lower class black South Africans to misdirect their frustration, what happens then? Who will be the scapegoat for the frustrations of the lower class? Will the rightful audience of their frustration finally be targeted? Will the government finally see to the ever growing economic concerns of the poor, without first addressing the huge economic issues that stem from corruption and lack of accountability? Will white South Africans finally give land back to the indigenes? I’m of the opinion that most of the questions would be answered in the negative, and that in itself, if very telling.
Where To From Here?
The incessant Afrophobic attacks has exposed a multitude of ironies, that exist in the black South African community. Firstly, it is ironic that the historically (even presently) oppressed, are seeking to oppress and subject another group of people to unspeakable violence. Secondly, it is ironic that the Africans being slaughtered in South Africa, are citizens of the African nations who aided black South Africans, financially, socially and militarily, during the Apartheid regime. Thirdly, it is ironic that black South Africans, who are so vocal about white South Africans in general, aspire to whiteness so much so, that it has resulted in a false sense of superiority. Lastly, it is ironic that young black South Africans are constantly championing movements that advocate for equality (for example #FeesMustFall) or eradication of bigotry in any form, yet a number of young black South Africans, have been silent on the issue of Afrophobic attacks, or have even tried to justify the violence.
The uncomfortable truth that the black South African community needs to confront, is that Afrophobia is a serious social concern, that now rears its ugly head annually, in the form of violence. It is a social issue that needs to be aggressively addressed, with a significant amount of introspection and objectivity.