Why Xenophobia thrives
By Oluwole Sheriff Olusanya
Clearly, on account of the current burden of xenophobia, relations between Nigeria and South Africa today are not at their most impressive. And this is coming against the backdrop of the celebration of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a day that is observed annually on 21st March. On that day, in 1960, police opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville, South Africa, against the apartheid pass laws. Proclaiming the day in 1966, the United Nations General Assembly called on the international community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.
In South Africa, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is also observed as the Human Rights Day which is a public holiday celebrated on the same day each year. This day commemorates the lives that have been lost to fight for democracy and equal human rights in South Africa during the Apartheid regime. The Sharpeville Massacre during Apartheid on 21st March 1960 is the particular reference day for this public holiday. The theme for 2017 is “Racial profiling and incitement to hatred, including in the context of migration”
(Source: Wikipedia.com/International Day for the elimination of racial discrimination)
Regrettably, the rainbow nation’s unpleasant history continues to haunt her in more ways than one, the country has been a hotspot for racial violence and discriminatory attacks in recent times and thousands of foreign nationals have either been attacked, injured, killed, or maimed in pockets of racial violence specifically inspired by xenophobia and racism unfortunately directed at fellow Africans.
Xenophobia in South Africa
South Africa is experiencing a rise in what is being described as “xenophobic” violence, Locals are accusing migrants of stealing their jobs and blaming them for a high crime rate. About two million foreigners live in South Africa and a majority of them were born in other African countries, including Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Somalia.
In recent weeks, South Africa witnessed a resurgence of xenophobic violence in parts of Johannesburg and Pretoria, the country’s capital city and the reality is that this type of violence is a daily occurrence in the country, although it does not always get media attention. It has, in fact, become a long-standing feature in post-apartheid South Africa. Since 1994, tens of thousands of people have been harassed, attacked or killed because of their status as outsiders or foreign nationals.
As the current incidents illustrate, hostility towards foreign nationals is still pervasive in the country and continues to result in more cases of murder, injuries, and threats of mob violence, looting and the destruction of residential property and businesses, as well as mass displacement. Obviously, the violence is xenophobic because it is – as the scholar Belinda Dodson reminds us – “an explicit targeting of foreign nationals or outsiders for violent attacks despite other material, political, cultural or social forces that might be at play”. It is a hate crime whose logic goes beyond the often accompanying and misleading criminal opportunism. The real motive of the violence, as unambiguously expressed by the perpetrators themselves, is to drive foreign populations out of communities.
Likely Causes of Xenophobic Attacks
Political Scapegoating – Regrettably, Political leaders and officials of the national, provincial and local government often blame foreign nationals for their systemic failures to deliver on the political promises and satisfy the citizenry’s growing expectations. Due to political scapegoating, many South African citizens perceive foreign nationals as a serious threat that needs to be eliminated by any means necessary. This perception is stronger among the majority of citizens living in poor townships and informal settlements where they meet and fiercely compete with equally poor African immigrants for scarce resources and opportunities. The result is that local residents in these areas have become increasingly convinced that foreign nationals are to blame for all their socio-economic ills and hardships including poverty, unemployment, poor service delivery, lack of business space and opportunities; crime; prostitution; drug and alcohol abuse; and deadly diseases. It is common knowledge that the official South African government’s response to xenophobia and related violence has been characterized by “denialism”. Such denialism is rooted in a discourse which labels all xenophobic violence as “just crime and not xenophobia”, a categorization that demands few specific and sustained interventions or policy changes.
Weak Judicial System – The government’s unwillingness to recognize xenophobia coupled with a general weak judicial system has also led to an alarming culture of impunity and lack of accountability for perpetrators and mandated institutions: foreign nationals have been repeatedly attacked in South Africa since 1994 but few perpetrators have been charged, even fewer convicted. In some instances, state agents have actively protected those accused of anti-foreigner violence. Similarly, there have been no efforts to hold mandated institutions such as the police and the intelligence community accountable for their failure to prevent and stop violence despite visible warning signs. Instances abound, government promises to set up special courts to enable quick prosecutions after the 2008 and 2015 violence never materialized. Instigators and perpetrators of xenophobic violence are well known in their respective communities, but the de facto impunity they enjoy only means that they are likely – as they have in many cases – to strike again.
(Source: An online publication by Jean Pierre Misago on New24.com titled “Xenophobia Due To Lack of Leadership”)
Massive Re-orientation – Jean Pierre Misago – the author of “Xenophobia Due To Lack of Leadership” confirmed that xenophobia and xenophobic attacks can be blamed on faulty leadership and I share a similar sentiment, government at all levels needs to re-double its efforts and ensure an all-inclusive growth and development of the African country. A massive re-orientation of the masses on the need to shun violence and embrace peace is of utmost and urgent importance. South Africans needs to be reminded that no country is self-sufficient and the greatest test of humanity is in our ability to embrace others and co-exist with them in peace, tranquility and harmony.
The Mass Media – Peggy Hicks – Director of the Thematic Engagement, Special Procedures and Right to Development Division at the UN Human Rights Office, pointed out that racism builds on the fear of the ‘other’. “Some politicians and media manipulate that fear to incite hatred against that ‘other’, denying the enormous amount humanity shares, and focusing on the little that makes us different”. She noted. Obviously, we will continue to get it wrong when we continue to believe that the government can do it alone. The importance of the media in the fight against xenophobia and xenophobic attacks can never be over-emphasized. The media needs to play an active role in the fight against racism and racial violence in other to complement government’s efforts. I believe a good way to start is to ensure that these inhumane attacks are given prioritized media coverage because one of the reasons they continue to thrive is because they are hardly reported as stated in the fifth paragraph.
Throughout history, many of the horrible things that people have done to each other have occurred because one group of people felt superior to another. They learned to see differences in others — such as race, color, gender, age, disability, religious belief or sexual orientation — as a reason for thinking that people with that characteristic were not worthy of the same rights as they were. This prejudice justified their decision to discriminate against the other group – the other group is humiliated, excluded, restricted or marginalized because of these perceived differences.
March 21st is a perfect opportunity to help us celebrate human unity and the diversity of the human race rather than allow our differences to become an excuse for racial separation. It’s a chance to recognize prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination in our society, and how each of us may have our own prejudices and may be making people feel excluded without our even realizing it. It’s a chance to reaffirm our commitment to eliminate all forms of discrimination and help create communities and societies where all residents (either nationals or migrants) can live in dignity, equality and peace.
In a world of diversity, understanding and respect of others constitute the only possible path. Building walls to keep other people out often means keeping ourselves shut in. Our diversity is a strength: let us learn how to draw on it for the resources of inventiveness, creativity and peace. The more we respect others, the more we respect ourselves.
Olusanya, Oluwole Sheriff is a relationship officer with Sterling Bank Plc