By Henry Boyo
THE latest widespread currency of the word, Xenophobia, in September, 2019, is, arguably, instigated by media reports of the looting and burning, of several shops, allegedly, owned in South Africa, by foreign nationals, primarily from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Somalia and Ethiopia.
Incidentally, xenophobia is defined as “dislike of, or, prejudice against people from other countries;” indeed, the latest rampage is a precursor of similar attacks which date back, to 1994, when such attacks were first reported against Mozambican and Congolese immigrants in South Africa. Notably, after majority rule in 1994, at least 67 people, according to Wikipedia, were reportedly killed in xenophobic attacks between 2000-2008.
Similar attacks were reported also in October 2015, when local taxi drivers attacked shops owned by Pakistani, Somali, Bangladeshi and Ethiopian residents of Grahams Town.
The attacks were, apparently, the product of a rumour that insinuated that foreigners were responsible for the rampant murders in the land!
Curiously, local Ward Councilors, in the Makana municipality were also accused of legitimizing xenophobic attacks, as they demanded that foreigners should not be given platforms to have their own shops, while, an officially sanctioned, anti-immigrant protest was held in Pretoria, in February 2017; the protesters accused immigrants of taking jobs from South Africans and also causing crime!
Other protesters also complained that foreigners, particularly Nigerians, were arrogant and “don’t” also “know how to talk to people!”
Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African President, incidentally, was also blamed for stoking fears of xenophobia when he promised to crack down on undocumented foreigners involved in criminal activities, during the run-up to the March 2019 elections! Ultimately, following the death of a taxi driver, on September 1, 2019, riots and looting, targeting shops owned by foreigners, broke out in Johannesburg.
About 50 businesses, predominantly, owned by African immigrants were, reportedly destroyed or damaged; these riots, also coincided with a nationwide truck drivers strike, which was also protesting against, the employment of non-South African truckers.
The preceding narrative clearly confirms that criminal attacks on innocent immigrants from several African countries are not new in South Africa. Conversely, the authorities have, seemed, to condone such incidents sometimes, with the Police knowingly looking the other way, while senior government officials, also continue to make uncomplimentary insinuations which could fuel the intensity of these attacks.
For example, in September 2019, the South African Small Business Development Minister, Lindiwe Zulu, asserted that “foreign business owners had an advantage over their South African counterparts because of marginalization under apartheid.” According to Zulu, “they cannot barricade themselves and not share their ‘trade secrets’ with local business owners.”
Nevertheless, a case study by Vanya Gastrow, a Researcher, from the “African Centre for Migration”, in Johannesburg, suggests that “most small foreign retailers set a low mark-up to make a high turnover; furthermore, they also locate their businesses, in higher traffic pedestrian areas, and open their shops early and close late; additionally, they also have a wide product range!”
Regrettably, the efforts of security forces to protect immigrants, remain unconvincing, and has certainly failed to diffuse the possibility of such anti-immigrant attacks. However, in September 2019, the latest xenophobic attacks on African immigrants, particularly, from, Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe and the DRC, have probably, evoked much more emotion, and diplomatic scuttling to calm the storm.
Curiously, the South African authorities adopted the deflective denial, that these attacks were more crime related than allegations of xenophobia. Indeed, despite the evident robust contributions of eminently qualified Nigerian professionals in health, business and higher educational institutions, in South Africa, Nigerian immigrants, particularly, have also been largely, unfairly, blanket labeled as drug dealers, human traffickers and scammers.
Consequently, the fear of further persecution, has driven about 640 Nigerians to choose to return home. The first batch of about 150 immigrants, arrived in Lagos on September 11, 2019, courtesy of AIR PEACE, en route to their final destinations.
Curiously, South African officials have, however, insisted that those without approved immigration status would be profiled, and maybe prosecuted before they are allowed to return home.
Although the Nigerian Government has demanded compensation from South Africa, for the unfortunate victims of xenophobia, no value has so far been mentioned. Nonetheless, in sporadic reprisal attacks, ubiquitous area boys, looted perceived, South African, business interests in Lagos and Abuja.
Ironically, the wounds on such properties were, ultimately, self-inflicted, as the Nigerian tenants and shareholders of these South African franchises, invariably, suffered heavy losses, and it is not clear how these innocent bystanders will ultimately be compensated!
However, Nigerians cannot be sanctimonious about the bane of xenophobia, as, hundreds of thousands of Ghanaian immigrants were, also, summarily ordered, in January 1983, by the directive of President Shehu Shagari, to leave Nigeria, for political considerations, allegedly, relating to the imminent elections, later in August 1983.
Similarly, earlier in 1969, Nigerian traders in Ghana, who controlled the country’s retail trade, from the centrally located, popular Makola Market, were ordered to get out, even after these Nigerian families had lived, for several decades in the then Gold Coast.
Predictably, from the preceding series of forced repatriation of African immigrants, the possibility of repetition of such trauma, in another African context, cannot be ruled out!
It is curious, however, that 42 African countries, including, lately, Nigeria, agreed to a protocol, to facilitate free trade within the African continent, yet the critical issue of “free movement of peoples,” across erstwhile colonial boundaries, appears frozen.
Remarkably, older Nigerian citizens still recall that compulsory ‘voluntary’ levies were automatically deducted from individual salaries in both public and private sectors, as contributions towards bringing down the evil rule of Apartheid in South Africa, during the liberation struggle! Consequently, some Nigerians are, predictably, horrified at the odious reward of xenophobia for, their sacrifice of love for their fellow African brothers!
Arguably, the relative peace and stability within immigrant communities, in the European Union, is largely due to a common platform of relatively level opportunities for indigenes as well as immigrants from other EU countries; in such event, there is minimal recourse to xenophobia.
Nevertheless, because human beings will, naturally, migrate to greener pastures, it becomes clear, that in order to significantly eliminate the negative impact of mass migration across our continent, the level of development and growth, within each country, must fall within similar economic bands to avoid the threat of xenophobic attacks on our immigrants!
Notably, the unemployment rate amongst the 15-24 age groups in South Africa is as high as 55 per cent, while the unemployment rate for the same age group average 58.1 per cent in Nigeria.
Such a high rate of unemployment, is clearly a mark of deepening poverty and provides a combustible mix to instigate further threats of xenophobia, particularly, when inflation is spiraling closer to 10 per cent to reduce purchasing power of all income earners throughout the continent.