The Xenophobic attacks in South Africa against Nigerians and nationals of some other African countries have returned. South African president, Jacob Zuma, says he believes that South Africans are merely fed up with crime. Immigrants however, do not agree. They have even taken up arms and are now threatening to defend themselves from attack. Considering that many of the attacks have been against legal businesses owned by foreigners, the claim that the attacks are because of crime seem to be far-fetched.
In 2015, the relatively young nation experienced one of her worst incidents of xenophobia after Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, allegedly said that foreigners should "pack their bags and go back home". This resulted in a wave of violence against foreigners, leaving many dead and properties destroyed. Nigerians were among the worst hit, forcing many of her citizens to call for a number of retaliatory measures.
I can remember a time while living in India when Nigerians were accused of beating up policemen in India. This news report, which was well televised, stirred a wave of attacks and anti-Nigerian sentiments across the country. There was just a problem with it: the perpetuators were not Nigerians (and this was obvious to all the Africans around). The Association of Nigerians wrote to the television station and the police demanding for a retraction and apology. It never came. The damage was done and the truth was suppressed. The result was that many of us had to become extra careful as we walked on the streets as many branded us as dangerous people. Landlords had an extra reason not to rent houses to us. Policemen stopped us at will, demanding to see our papers. I remember having to go back home to get my passport on at least one occasion, after which I began carrying photocopies everywhere.
Apparently, the situation in South Africa is far worse than anything I ever saw in India as this has led not only to loss of properties but also many lives.
Why Xenophobia Keeps Rearing Its Head in South Africa
I encountered Cape Town in its splendour in 2014, and spent time gazing at the wonderful scenery, Table Mountain and the beautiful, historical buildings all around. After a week on the nice side of town, though, I moved over to stay with some Nigerian friends on the not-so-nice region. My first welcome to that area was that my phone disappeared at the train station- a considerable feat for whosoever performed it considering that I had always thought that living in Nigeria and India had trained me in defense against pickpockets...
I got to meet with several young South African locals, enjoy their music (they have some of the world's best singers), and visit one of their predominantly black universities. There, I encountered, firsthand, some of the effects of the deep culture of segregation that South Africa had to pass through. I was informed that this university had one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world- so high that the school authorities placed free condoms everywhere. I met with several young people with life ambitions I would consider very shallow. Quite frankly, I saw exactly why many Nigerians, trained by harsh realities of our society to survive, hustle and thrive, would get to these parts of South Africa and easily take over the businesses and the women.
I believe that xenophobia can keep rearing its head in South Africa because there are two South Africas: a very prosperous South Africa that boasts of development that can rival the west, and a much poorer and deprived South Africa that has been at the receiving end of discrimination and injustice, and has not been economically empowered. It is easy for this other group to blame every other person for their woes- and in some ways, they will be correct. More importantly, it is easy for influencers- especially politicians and the media- to incite violence among this group by suggesting that other people are responsible for their problems. Africans from other countries who look like them, but have prospered in South Africa are an easy target.
How Can Xenophobia Be Stopped?
Xenophobic attacks are a crime against humanity. And to solve them, it is high time the world started holding its leaders accountable for their words. While the world seems to be moving towards an era of protectionism, leaders, influencers and the media need to pay attention to talking responsibly, instead of generalizing and blaming others for their country's woes! How did Hitler sow the seeds of a world war? He blamed the Jews for the loss of jobs, for crime and for everything that was bad in Germany. A South African king's unguarded statements blaming foreigners for loss of jobs resulted in the loss of many lives and property in 2015. With statements like these on the rise even in the west, the world may be in for more xenophobia all around if they are not curbed.
I think that countries that emerge as the victims of xenophobia also need to have strong citizen protection policies. No matter how much xenophobia exists in a country, the nationals will think twice before attacking a US citizen because they know that the government of that country places a heavy premium on the lives of its citizens.
Finally, xenophobia (especially in South Africa) reminds us of the large inequality and the real problems of unemployment and poverty. These are huge social problems that must be tackled for real, lasting peace to occur.