By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Xenophobia, that odious human phenomenon, reared its ugly head in South Africa last week. With chilling consistency, the authorities have been all too happy to let it simmer for a while until, as it always does, it boils over. There have been such attacks before. Before this most recent one, violence erupted in April 2015 when Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini, bemoaned the presence of foreigners, African ones especially: they ‘inconvenience locals’, he argued. In supposedly peaceful protests a few days after the first violent attacks broke out in the week just past, police would eventually disperse the protesters – gangs and criminals really – with tear gas and rubber bullets. But only after the marauders had helped themselves to goods not their own. Apart from the longstanding structural issues, the violent attacks are a failing of law enforcement, arguably deliberate, since when the authorities later did their duty, order was restored. It is a phony peace.
South Africa, in its current state, is a tinderbox of sorts. A perfection if you are looking for unseemly ways to warm the cockles of the hearts of a longsuffering majority black poor, whose goodwill and commonwealth greedy politicians squander like there is no tomorrow. So how about we let those hungry ones make away with a few loaves of bread, teach the stingy ‘Paki’ shopkeeper a lesson for a change? And those bloody arrogant and loud Nigerians, only just come and already driving flashy cars and stealing our women. Such anti-immigrant sentiments sing like a chorus to the ears of locals and foreigners alike in South Africa: it is all too familiar. But to allow the opportunistic politicians and the few crooks and joblesss know-nothings rewrite the narrative in favour of their myopic xenophobia would be a great disservice to the warm and lovely people of South Africa.
The majority of South Africans love foreigners and are not xenophobic. And yes, most love Nigerians. And we love you too. I condemn with the utmost vehemence, the opportunistic Nigerian student union leaders, who instead of taking over the streets in protest over the poor quality of education at our universities, the many languishing unpaid and underpaid lecturers, and our thieving politicians, decided the way to retaliate the erring ways of a few nameless South African criminals, was to destroy the property of a South African company; which by the way employs many Nigerians. So they can now give ultimatums? Empty barrels. Foreigners are welcome here.
Kick welfare state
Too high unemployment in South Africa – about a quarter of the population is jobless – is a ticking time-bomb. That some poor black South Africans have chosen to take out their frustrations at foreigners, particularly those of African descent, is somewhat disingenuous. Economic power remains within the firm grasp of the minority white population. And if the politicians feel the slightest relief that their ‘problem’ has found a vulnerable target to vent at, how soon before they turn on them? They are not waiting to find out. Never one to miss a political opportunity, Jacob Zuma, the South African president (never mind that he waited a few days to voice his condenmnation of the xenophobia-fuelled violence) threw a well-timed bone at the poor crowd – lest it becomes an uncontrollable rampaging horde: land would now be expropriated from whites without compensation.
That this recent populist move is coming from the enfeebled ruling African National Congress (ANC) leader, one who has caused his party much grief no less, and who cadres would gladly be rid off as party president come December, is not entirely surprising. Still, it is a most significant policy departure for a centrist party that hitherto – and wisely so – sought to balance the often conflicting needs of capital and politics. Credit for this downswing should go to the ultra-nationalist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and its firebrand leader, Julius Malema, most definitely. A few probably had a foreboding of things to come: President Zuma touted ‘radical economic transformation’ at his recent State of the Nation Address (SONA). But most likely thought it was just huff and puff from a leader whose power is waning: Mr Zuma probably has no choice but to stir up some populist support. Not anymore.
Even so, some hard truths need to be told. Having almost half of households on at least one form of welfare is hardly a recipe for enterprise. How is it that an able-bodied individual gets to expect a paycheck for doing nothing at the end of every month? Where would that person get the incentive to engage in productive activity? South Africa’s welfare system has to be reformed. Authorities must make welfare payments conditional on productive engagement. How about structuring welfare payments to unemployed able-bodied youths as loans? Intelligent solutions would be what stops the vicious cycle of poverty, despondency, xenophobia, and criminality amongst poor black South Africans.
A man who decides to leave home in search of greener pastures is hardly going to reach his destination only to just sit idle. Many have responsibilities back home, with numerous relatives ‘casting and binding’ for their success. And failure. They have to succeed. Unfortunately, this sometimes mean they do so by hook or crook. Even so, many immigrants succeed the legal and proper way. A Nigerian who all of a sudden finds himself in a country with 24-hour power supply, a reliable transportation system, and cheap food, can have his productivity quadrupled without the slightest addition of effort. This is why many succeed abroad. Many come from a life of toil and strife. To immigrate in the first instance would have required years of saving, and in the extreme case, taking a loan. Getting a visa would have required enduring weeks – sometimes months – at embassies, accompanied with fasting and prayer. Tell me, when that person eventually makes it out, what do you think he or she would do? South Africa benefits from immigrants. When they are not playing to the gallery, its politicians acknowledge this fact. Many, many Nigerians and South Africans live and do business together with great warmth and affection. The few xenophobic ‘haters’ in our midst will fail.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria column (Tuesdays). See link viz. https://www.businessdayonline.com/foreigners-welcome/