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Opinion: South Africans need to face some harsh truths

Shaazia Ebrahim
September 5, 2019

South Africans need to take a long, hard look at themselves and stop blaming foreigners for their country's woes, says South African journalist Shaazia Ebrahim.

Residents of Jeppe township wave batons after a new wave of violence against foreigners
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Spatari

The photos and videos of widespread looting and burning of stores and businesses owned by foreign nationals in South Africa look like scenes from an apocalyptic film.

At least seven people have been killed in this latest mayhem, while hundreds have been arrested in connection with the violence.

All the while, we South Africans hang our heads in shame, with #SayNoToXenophobia and other related hashtags trending in the country in the past days. 

South Africa no stranger to xenophobia

In 2008, the world watched in horror as more than 60 people were killed in an outburst of attacks against foreigners in South Africa. It has proved not to be an isolated incident: Xenophobia has lurked in the country over the past decade, rearing its ugly head every couple of years. 

The most recent spate of violence occurred just this week. It began on Sunday evening in Jeppestown, a suburb of Johannesburg. Reports say the violence was in reaction to the deaths of at least two people killed in a building fire. 

The attacks then spread to other parts of Johannesburg, including its central business district and typically working class areas that house and employ foreign nationals such as Malvern, Tembisa, Katlehong and Alexandra. 

Dozens of burnt-out cars litter a car dealership in Jonannesburg
Between Sunday and Wednesday, mobs looted and destroyed businesses and storesImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Spatari

Whereas President Cyril Ramaphosa has previously been criticized for dragging his feet in responding to previous instances of violence, he condemned it relatively quickly this time. 

"There can be no justification for any South African to attack people from other countries," he said in a video posted to Twitter on Tuesday. Ramaphosa said the attacks on businesses owned by "foreign nationals is something totally unacceptable, something that we cannot allow to happen in South Africa." 

"I want it to stop immediately," he added.

This wasn't good enough for the Uber driver giving me a lift home of Wednesday, though.

"If this had happened while Zuma was a president," he said, referring to former South African and ANC politician Jacob Zuma, "he would have spoken to us in person, or at least on national TV."

Africans elsewhere outraged by attacks

From Zambian students marching on the South African High Commission, to the South African Embassy in Nigeria being temporarily closed following protests, the rest of Africa is not happy.

Radio stations have stopped playing South African music, and the Zambian football association canceled a friendly against Bafana Bafana, the South African national team. 

Nigerian artists Tiwa Savage and Burna Boy have also instituted a cultural boycott of South Africa. 

South African businesses have been shut down in Zambia and Nigeria. Nigerian Airlines is offering free flights back home to Nigerian nationals living in South Africa. 

The Nigerian government has boycotted the World Economic Forum currently underway in Cape Town. 

The shame of being South African

It's an embarrassing, shameful situation for we South Africans to find ourselves in. 

The national conversation is somber. News about the xenophobia is inescapable. It's in the papers, on TV, on social media and in water-cooler conversations at work and schools. 

Even WhatsApp groups are filled with disturbing imagery of the violence, including safety alerts about areas to avoid because of it. 

For South Africans, there is nowhere to turn. We are sad and angry. Neither South Africans, nor foreign nationals, feel safe in the current socio-political climate. 

Lauded the world over for our peaceful defeat of apartheid and progressive constitution, we are not nearly as beloved on the African continent itself. 

The way we treat African foreign nationals is our own fault, starting with the government and ending with ordinary citizens. 

Government is complicit

From mayors to opposition party leaders, department officials, and even the Zulu king, South African politicians have been known to spout xenophobic rhetoric.

We South Africans are still waiting for strong condemnations of the xenophobic violence from leaders who either don't seem to understand how powerful their words are in influencing public opinion, or don't care enough about the state of the nation. 

South Africa's President Cyril Ramphosa walks in suit and smiles to the camera
President Ramaphosa's (center) promise to crack down on foreign migrants is seen as having fueled anti-foreigner sentimentImage: picture-alliance/AP

Foreign nationals are often used as a scapegoat for the South African government's failings. The country is gripped by a harsh economic climate marked by slow economic growth, high unemployment and an ever-increasing chasm between the haves and have-nots. 

The rhetoric filters down into the mouths of ordinary South Africans, who, 25 years after apartheid ended, are still struggling to put food in the bellies of their families.

"They steal our jobs and our women" is the common narrative painted by South Africans as the reason for xenophobia. Foreign nationals are often accused of being criminals and drug dealers, undercutting South Africans for work, burdening what are already limited social services, and wooing South African women. 

"It's very bad. What do they want? They say us foreigners are stealing their jobs. But some of them, they don't want to work ... We say, 'Come there's a shop that opened looking for workers,' but they don't want to work, they just want money," 26-year-old Lindi Ndebele from Zimbabwe said. 

Ndebele, whose name has been changed because she fears for her safety, works for a South African family as domestic help. 

A 2015 study found that around a third of foreign nationals in South Africa are employed in the informal sector as traders, domestic workers or car guards. 

Men sit at the roadside waiting for work
These Zimbabwean men sitting at a roadside waiting for work are part of South Africa's informal employment sectorImage: picture-alliance/dpa/N. Bothma

These workers don't own land, have access to the means of production and capital, or places in our higher education institutes. Often, they are just as desperate as the people attacking them.

In a country where 29% of the employable population doesn't have a job, the xenophobic attacks are evidence that desperation among poor South Africans is mounting.

We South Africans have to face some harsh truths. And the truth is that when the violence subsides, we'll be left with the bare bones of reality: a failing government with a leadership vacuum and non-existent jobs in a motionless economy.

Shaazia Ebrahim is a South African journalist who reports mainly on gender, health and politics. 

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