Afrophobia and the quest for human rights

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Foreign national shows a sign as South African President Jacob Zuma addresses a temporary refugee camp in Chatsworth, south of Durban on April 18, 2015 during a visit marked by hostile reaction of foreign nationals chanting "Go home, go Home" and "too late, too late". Zuma cancelled a state visit to Indonesia on April 18 as officials scrambled to respond to xenophobic violence in Johannesburg and in the eastern port city of Durban that has erupted earlier in the week, claiming at least six lives and forcing more than 5,000 foreigners to seek refuge in makeshift camps. The attacks on immigrant-owned shops and homes in Durban's impoverished townships come three months after a similar spate of attacks on foreign-owned shops in Soweto, near Johannesburg. AFP/ PHOTO RAJESH JANTILAL

By Vusi Gumbi
ON March 21, 1960, 69 people were killed by the apartheid police during a peaceful march in Sharpville. They were protesting against the pass laws that declared Africans had to be granted permission to move from one point to another. This would later be known as the Sharpeville Massacre. At the end of the apartheid era, the government of national unity officially declared March 21 as Human Rights Day.

South Africa was the continent’s biggest economic hub, undoubtedly making it a magnet for thousands of African immigrants facing economic, political and social problems in their own countries.

But South Africa, too, is susceptible to a fluctuation of stability. The country is characterised by a tense post-apartheid situation, in which justice and equality are constantly being reviewed by its citizens, through their participation in the political environment, after realising that the government is slow in bringing about their material benefits of being a citizen as spelled out in the Constitution.

The government is struggling to adequately cater for its citizens’ social and economic needs, with Statistics South Africa announcing that the unemployment rate sits at 34,9% (with the expanded definition sitting at 46,6%). This is an alarming statistic and it explains why local citizens feel threatened by foreign nationals coming to settle in the country.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, South Africa has experienced an influx of immigrants from its neighbouring countries, such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, all seeking economic and political refuge; with the influx of foreign nationals, also came a greater resistance from locals.

Black South Africans feel vulnerable about the fact that fellow Africans come to compete with them to make a living because the strategic sectors of the economy do not represent the broad demographics of the population. In 1994, the government changed but the social structure remained the same.

The reasons cited above as to why local citizens feel threatened by African immigrants are now being exploited by a group calling itself Operation Dudula — which is manipulating the material conditions of the poor for its members’ personal ambitions.

The recent afrophobic events have been led by criminals masquerading as grassroots activists, claiming that the bulk of South Africa’s problems are because of illegal African immigrants (people who do not run the mines and the banks; people who do not own the land; people who have not hogged the wealth of the country together with their close relatives and associates).

What is unfortunate is that the government and public institutions allow the scapegoating of African foreign nationals to gain traction to distract the general public from its failure in transforming South Africa. Just as the July unrest of 2021 was not really about the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma — he was just a trigger — the proximity of African foreign nationals to black South Africans makes it easy for them to be scapegoated.

This is not to advocate for illegal immigrants and lawlessness in South Africa but African migrants are not the reason why there are no jobs; they are not the reason why there is no service delivery or water and sanitation; they are not the reason why black people continue to be in the peripheries, subjected to spatial injustice and left to inherit a life of destitution because they are distant from economic productivity.

Those are our problems and they do not exist because of our brothers and sisters from across the continent. Yes, illegal foreign nationals do commit crimes — between 2016 and 2019, there were 7 841 arrests involving illegal immigrants in Johannesburg alone. But the level of corruption in the public sector is what enables this phenomenon. Home Affairs officials who accept bribes, border patrols who allow foreign nationals without permits to enter the country and the South African Police Service officials who are in cahoots with them are the real culprits because they create fertile ground for such illegality.

The afrophobic behaviour is misdirected anger and frustration at the fact that black South Africans still have to make do with welfare crumbs and continue to be subjected to degradation. Our nation is not a free-for-all and its rules must never be overlooked. Illegal immigrants must not have a place in South Africa: all illegal immigrants, not just those with a brown skin colour. Equally, all South African public officials who flout the law for their own pockets when it comes to the foreign nationals entering the country must be brought to book and face the full wrath of the law.

As the nation commemorates human rights month, it is important to remind ourselves that almost three decades ago our own political system was reconstructed on the basis of fresh values of inclusiveness, tolerance and human rights. These are embodied in the Constitution. They are part of the heritage that is the legacy of our liberation struggle and the sacrifices made by our African allies.

South Africans must remain cognisant of the fact that African countries united to fight against the apartheid regime and that it is through their support that South Africa attained liberation in 1994. Neighbouring nations supported South Africa’s liberation movements as they hosted our exiles and our country owes much of its freedom to the support they provided.

Aside from the immediate material harm caused by Afrophobia, in the longer term it could damage our society irreparably. For a century, we struggled against a system that was organised around race and ethnic identity. We replaced it with the notion of a rights-based society in which all are equal. Afrophobia cuts across this new regime and negates its accomplishments. Operation Dudula is Afrophobia, and Afrophobia is anti-human rights