AFRICANGLOBE – After breaking free from decades of apartheid – with the support of their fellow Africans – many South Africans have become hostile to African migrants in their country – a phenomena some experts attribute to growing frustration over the lack of jobs and economic inequality.
“Xenophobia did not start overnight,” said Prof. Andre Duvenhage of South Africa’s Northwest University.
“It’s been there – at low levels – for the past decade, mainly because of economic circumstances,” he asserted.
South Africa has a population of over 53 million people of diverse origins, languages, cultures and religions.
The country is referred to as “the rainbow nation” due to its diverse population, which includes Blacks, whites, Indians and coloreds.
But Blacks constitute the majority of the country’s population at nearly 80 percent.
However, many Blacks still live in shantytowns, trapped in chronic poverty and unemployment.
Youths account for about 40 percent of the country’s total population.
Most wealth, however, is still concentrated in the hands of whites, whose numbers are estimated at about 4.5 million.
“People are unhappy with the government’s failure to create jobs, with unemployment levels standing at 25 percent,” Duvenhage said.
“So they have turned their anger on African migrants,” he said.
In recent weeks, South Africa has seen mounting anti-immigrant violence that has mostly targeted migrants from other African countries.
The violence began earlier this month in Durban, where mobs descended on the homes and shops of a number of foreign migrants.
The victims were accused of stealing jobs from native South Africans, committing crimes, and putting a burden on the country’s social services.
At least seven people have been killed so far in the violence, which has since spread to parts of Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city.
The violence has forced scores of migrants from Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and other African countries to leave South Africa.
Some claim there are as many as 5 million migrants in the country, including 3 million Zimbabweans.
But according to the African Institute for Migration and Society (formerly known as the Forced Migration Studies program), there are between 1.6 and 2 million documented and undocumented migrants living in South Africa.
Most of these are accounted for by migrants from Southern African Development Community (SADC) states, especially Zimbabwe.
Migrants began flocking to South Africa following the end of apartheid in 1994.
“As people came into the country from 1994 – and the government failed to create jobs – frustration grew, leading to these attacks,” Mienke Mari Steyler of the Institute for Race Relations said.
She said the country faced extreme poverty, inequality and unemployment, which have long fuelled popular frustration.
“They see foreign nationals as taking their [employment] opportunities, especially those trading in informal settlements, where there are angry people,” added Steyler.
Duvenhage, for his part, said that, unfortunately, South Africa had a strong culture of violence, with most people resorting to violence to solve their problems.
He said recent anti-immigrant violence was not a new phenomenon.
The academic cited similar attacks in 2008, in which several African migrants were killed.
“Xenophobia is not a transient issue. We are going to see these attacks continue because of the unstable economy,” Duvenhage said.
Prof. Loren Landou of the African Institute for Migration and Society said South Africans may generally dislike immigrants – especially those who are poor and dark.
“The attacks in Durban and elsewhere in the country are part of an ongoing trend of demonizing and attacking foreigners that goes back to the mid-1990s, if not before,” he said by email.
This perceived dislike by South Africans of their fellow Africans has drawn criticism both inside and outside the country – especially in light of African contributions to South Africa’s struggle against apartheid.
“The government reacted rather slowly at the beginning when the problem started,” says political analyst Sadrack Gutto.
“The government has now voiced concern about the xenophobic violence because it has created a different image of the country than what Nelson Mandela fought for,” he said.
Mogosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the Ikhatha Freedom Party (IFP) and a Zulu royal, admitted this week that the violence had tarnished the country’s image.
“Our people are attacking the very neighbors who gave us refuge during our own liberation struggle,” he said.
Many African countries, especially those in SADC, helped South Africa in its fight against white minority rule.
Some countries allowed training camps to be set up on their soil for South African freedom fighters.
Africa also led the international boycott campaign against South Africa’s apartheid.
Nigerian Senate President David Mark has criticized the attacks and accused South Africa of failing its moral obligation to be grateful to Nigeria for the frontline role it played during the apartheid era.
“We gave them scholarships, trained their staff, and this is how they treat us?” Mark fumed. “For them to repay us this way… is totally unacceptable and uncalled for.”
Hundreds of Malawians marched through the streets of capital Lilongwe on Tuesday to protest the xenophobic attacks in South Africa.
Marchers carried “No to Xenophobia” signs, but the most notable placard read, “Africa cries for Mandela.”