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South Africa Xenophobia: A Manifestation of Unfulfilled Promises

Harare, Zimbabwe – In 2008, the world witnessed the agonising death of the ‘burning man’.  The victim, Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave , 35, was f...

Harare, Zimbabwe – In 2008, the world witnessed the agonising death of the ‘burning man’. 

The victim, Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, 35, was first beaten, then set alight in Ramaphosa settlement. 

As the anti-foreign violence unfolded, we sat crammed in a single room in Vosloorus, 30 kilometres away from Johannesburg, contemplating the next life-saving move, or we could also become victims. 

Again, like the burning man, we were holed here because of failed, unfulfilled promises in our respective countries. Nhamuave’s crime, like the rest of us, was seeking a better life, while scrambling for limited resources meant for our South African hosts. 

Altogether, 62 people, including 21 South Africans, 11 Mozambicans, three Zimbabweans and three Somalis, died during the disturbances. Around 40,000 foreigners left, and another 50,000 were internally displaced.

That same year voters in Harare would wait for almost a month for an election result, pitting the then president Robert Mugabe and the main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. In the end, the contest spilled into a presidential runoff. 

Mugabe won another term. Those who sought to return home after the elections, like me, decided to prolong their stay, at least until the economy improved.

Meanwhile, Nhamuave’s death was not only horrific but reminded us how unsafe it had become to search for opportunities beyond your country. To his murderers, he was another parasitic migrant. Unfortunately, his death was not the last.

Symptoms of a failed system

Mbodazwe Banajo “Elvis” Nyathi, 43, a Zimbabwean was again beaten then set alight, by a vigilante group in Diepsloot on 6 April, this year. Someone was daring to film the horrendous act for the world to see. 
South Africa Xenophobia: A Manifestation of Unfulfilled Promises
His end was brutal; however, the culprits were demonstrating their anger toward the failed system.

Unfortunately, their anger was directed towards a defenceless individual, who was also a victim of failed policies in his home country. If demonstrations had failed to draw the attention of the government into action, then maybe violence would force the government to act.

Nyathi’s death opened a can of worms. At his memorial service, congregations poured their bitterness, often suppressed back home, through a repressive system. When a government representative tried to address the gathering, the crowds in attendance stopped him. 

But here, they could demonstrate freely, even if they were foreigners. The gathering directed their disgruntlement at the speaker, who represented a government that was responsible for Nyathi’s predicament and theirs too.

Although xenophobia is not new in South Africa, the attacks escalated in 2008 and 2015, according to the BBC. Despite the rise in violence, South Africa, to many young women in Africa, remains a destination of choice. An estimated 70 percent of foreign nationals in South Africa are from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Lesotho.

On arrival, the majority find themselves holed in squalor conditions, sometimes worse than what they were fleeing from. However, the lure of the South African Rand is too strong to resist. In addition, relative liberty, freedom of choice and a functional economy, aliens in their home countries attract more people each year.

Searching of better healthcare

Daily, pregnant Zimbabwean women flock to South Africa, fleeing from their country’s dilapidated public hospitals, to give birth in a safe environment. 

With high deaths during birth, Zimbabwe’s hospitals have become a death sentence, leaving no choice for the women but to seek a safe refugee for their unborn children elsewhere. Backyard midwives are flourishing, with the cost of birth has skyrocketed.

Inside the crowded townships, South Africans have a way to identify foreigners, for instance, the way they talk, dress and walk. As the competition intensifies, foreigners have become direct competitors, but because of their vulnerability, and fear of the police, they have become easy targets, because they cannot report the abuse to the police, for fear of arrests and deportation.

Civil servants in Zimbabwe live like paupers. The increase in armed robbers in South Africa has been attributed to the influx of foreigners who are reportedly engaging in cash heists. The rise in crime has been another bone of contention in South Africa, leading to the justification of some of the attacks meted against foreigners. 

Contrary, the amount of money sent by the diaspora community may suggest that the majority are gainfully employed and use the right channels to send their money back home.

South Africa is a relatively young independent country, only gaining independence in 1994, years after Zimbabwe had already gained independence from colonial rule. After 1994, South Africans expected an improvement in their lives, a shift from the colonial past, under the repressive apartheid rule.

‘Enemies’ of progress

But two decades on, the independence they fought for, has benefited a few. To the suffering majority, foreigners have become ‘invaders’ who must be fought. If they can’t enjoy the fruits of independence, no foreigner should enjoy the benefits of independence at their expense. 

Reports of employees who reportedly favour foreigners as opposed to locals, due to their ‘hard work’ ethic and good education background have not helped ease the situation.

After winning the vote to lead his country in May 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa said then, “We have been given this responsibility on an overriding basis to revive our economy, to create jobs.” But three years on, the promises are yet to be fulfilled.

“The pandemic shock has broadly weighed on social outcomes, with poverty rates, based on the poverty line for upper-middle income countries, estimated to have risen to levels of more than a decade ago,” according to April 2022, World Bank overview.

After years of promises to deal with the ongoing foreign influx problem, South Africans have felt cheated and are convinced that their government is slow to act, hence the rise of vigilante groups, like Operation Dudula, a group that seeks to drive out undocumented foreigners, mainly Africans. 

Hate or love it, the vigilante group and its members are convinced that they are there for a purpose, hence their drive to continue and spread their influence and membership drive into other provinces.

The group is cleansing the country of malcontents, on behalf of the government that is failing to deal with the problem or is being overwhelmed. Their actions are extreme, but deep down some of the people, including the ruling ANC party, reportedly believe they are the solution, where the state has failed.

The migrant problem in South Africa has been a rallying point for politicians. Herman Mashaba, for instance has taken advantage of the confusion to tell his supporters that the problem is caused by the current leadership, and it has exposed them as failures.

Mashaba, is therefore advocating for people must vote for an alternative, to cleanse the perennial problem facing the country. Julius Malema has since asked for forgiveness on behalf of his fellow countrymen.

For the attacks to stop, there must be a strong political will that demands tough decisions from the two governments, unfortunately, political leaders from both countries seem to be benefiting from the unfolding mayhem. 

For the Harare government, the return of their citizens could mean more trouble for the country, which is already facing an economic downturn.

The destination of choice

The continued violence could be a blessing in disguise for South Africa to reduce the burden on the country, and somehow appease the continued demands on service delivery and employment creation. 

But currently, South Africa remains a haven for many Zimbabweans, despite the recurrent xenophobic attacks. To them, it’s better to die in a foreign land that offers few opportunities, instead of going back home, where none exist at all.

From my experience, while in South Africa, regular interrogation and inhumane body searches by Home Affairs officials were rampant, even when one had valid traveling documents. 

In turn, the serotyping of hosts by immigrants as lazy and drunkards, reminded them of the Apartheid era, where they were classified as second-class citizens. 

The situation has not changed. Until this day, locals feel undermined and threatened by the influx of undocumented foreigners who accept lower wages for long hours.

In 2009, I relocated to KwaZulu-Natal from Johannesburg. There, I was privileged to stay with a South African. He was frank with me. Foreigners, according to him, mainly us Zimbabweans were behaving like stakeholders. 

Instead of enjoying the hospitality of their hosts, they wanted to become equals. This, he said, was the main cause of confrontation. If we want to be equals, we must go back home. For now, many have decided to stay and endure the violence.

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