Frank W. Acheampong | Revisiting the xenophobia debate


12 June 2015 – Earlier this year the world watched aghast as Emmanuel Sithole, or Manuel Jossias, was brutally stabbed to death in the streets of Alexandra Township in Johannesburg. Sithole’s “crime” was not being a South African in a nation struggling with an outbreak of xenophobic violence. This was ostensibly triggered a few weeks earlier by comments made by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelethini, but had been bubbling under the surface of South African society more or less since independence. This event, the latest in a series of outbreaks of violence between South Africans and foreign nationals, has prompted much soul-searching amongst both South Africans and foreigners looking for a humanitarian solution to a long-standing problem.

Since it gained independence, South Africa has been one of Africa’s prime economies. This steady development is aided by the implementation of sound economic and fiscal principles which are supported by a positive legal framework. As a result, South Africa is admired as a favorable investment destination on the African continent for businesses from all over the world as well as a haven for people from all works of life. This has led to the arrival of migrants from other parts of Africa and the world at large. These individuals come to South Africa in search of a better life, either due to political strife in their own countries, or in pursuit of opportunities to improve their economic situation. However, this influx of migrants has brought in its wake simmering tensions between South Africans and foreigners. Anti-immigrant sentiments have occasionally bubbled over and resulted in a flare-up of violence directed at foreigners.

My earliest recollection of what I thought was xenophobia occurred when, as a ten-year-old Ghanaian child growing up in Lesotho in the early ‘90s, my parents sent my thirteen-year-old sister and me to purchase groceries. A group of the local children followed us nearly all the way home, mocking us and singing derogatory songs. This incident stayed with me through the years and certainly affected my perceptions and attitudes as an adult. The experiences and observations I accumulated while growing up in Lesotho, Swaziland and South Africa are what compel me to partake in the debate on xenophobia in South Africa.

The American Psychological Association contends that, “while xenophobia can be a true phobia, it is often used in ways similar to the term homophobia. In this context, xenophobia characterizes people who dislike foreigners, believe that their country’s culture is superior, or wish to keep immigrants out of their country. Xenophobes may not actually have a true fear of outsiders; instead they manifest behaviors that are detrimental or in opposition to outsiders. Thus the term has strong political connotations.” Others add that xenophobia arises when a group of people is perceived as being a threat to the way of life of the person or people who experience it.

As a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, South Africa has enacted laws that seek to protect the dignity and humanity of all who live within its borders. Chapter Two of the South African Constitution (pdf) is the Bill of Rights, which protects the civil, socio-economic and political rights of all people in South Africa. Section 9 provides that “everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law” and prohibits unfair discrimination on the basis of race, ethnic or social origin, color, religion, culture, language and birth. These laws make it clear that the South African government is committed to protecting every single soul within its borders — as our courts have acknowledged (e.g. here and here). Xenophobia is an action that is patently against every aspect of this commitment, as well as against basic human dignity.

Xenophobia in South Africa reared its head most shockingly in 2008 with the “burning man” incident, when a Malawian citizen was set alight and burnt to death by a mob. Though regular incidents of xenophobic violence continued to occur in subsequent years, the cauldron of hate seemed to have simmered down.  But January 2015 saw another flare up in the Gauteng area triggered by the gunning down of a fourteen-year-old South African teenager by a foreign shop owner. The month of April 2015 brought the world pictures of violence against foreigners in Durban and its surrounding townships, allegedly as a result of a labor dispute, as well as the horrendous images of Emmanuel Sithole’s murder. These latest rounds of xenophobic incidents were attributed to comments made by influential people such as King Goodwill Zwelithini and President Jacob Zuma’s son Edward Zuma which sparked complaints to the South African Human Rights Commission.

A mid-17th century proverbial saying, immortalized by reggae great Bob Marley in his song “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)”, states that “a hungry man is an angry man”. This, probably more than any other reason, is a key aspect of the xenophobia debate in South Africa. A desperate man is unreasonable and quite capable of actions to which he would not be given were his circumstances not so straitened. As has been widely noted, socio-economic factors are at the root of many troubles in South Africa. But the poorer citizens of South Africa do not have the ability or the means to express their frustrations against those who are ultimately responsible for their wellbeing: their elected leaders. These leaders live in fortified mansions behind high walls, electric fences and razor wire and are protected by the members of a private security industry which outspends and just about outnumbers the regular police service. The ordinary citizen could never get to them to make their dissatisfaction known. It therefore becomes easier for an angry man to take out his anger on the outsider, the one who is seen as competing for barely adequate resources to which he does not have the right as a result of being a foreigner. The essence of it all is that when there is little to share, people start to look for reasons to exclude others in order to gain more for themselves.  And in this case the foreigners have become easy targets, and therefore find themselves bearing the brunt of the dissatisfaction.

The true problems in the country — widespread poverty, high unemployment, poor education and rampant corruption — are being ignored in the wave of violence, confusion and chaos generated by xenophobia. Every single day, ordinary people — both South African and foreign — face problems of deprivation and violence. Xenophobic attacks must be understood as part of this, rather than as a spontaneous, unprecedented aberration.  This statement is in no way meant to trivialise the impact of xenophobia on the lives of those affected by it, but merely serves to point out that xenophobia tends to spring forth from the tides of desolation and despair brought by poverty — and if nothing is done to address this poverty, xenophobia will continue to flourish.

Much as South Africa is indeed struggling to deal with these various issues, it must be mentioned that no social phenomenon takes place outside of the bounds of the society within which it arises. Though socio-economic problems may be the root of xenophobia in South Africa, the ordinary man and woman in the street must be taught that poverty can never be used as a justification for depriving another human being of basic human rights. “I assaulted my neighbor because I am hungry and he does not come from my town” is not a reason that can ever be accepted by any right-thinking human being, and yet this reasoning seems to form the backbone of the arguments peddled by those who would seek to justify xenophobia in South Africa. Such arguments are contrary to the spirit and essence of ubuntu, for which Africa in general, and South Africa in particular, is respected worldwide.

One can hardly touch the xenophobia debate in South Africa without having a word of caution for those people who hold leadership positions in the country and whose words carry a lot of weight with ordinary citizens. It is worth noting that at some stage during the clashes in Durban some of the people partaking in the looting and burning of foreign-owned shops and businesses claimed that they were doing so on King Goodwill Zwelithini’s word, a belief which the King and his advisors were quick to claim was wrongly derived from his true words and intent. Whatever the King’s true intentions, further comments by Edward Zuma only served to pour more fuel onto an already volatile situation. Perhaps the leadership would do well to remind itself that some of history’s greatest humanitarian crises started with words. Adolf Hitler used his words to whip up nationalistic fervor and pride, leading to the Second World War and the loss of countless millions of lives and untold trillions in destruction. In more recent times, the Rwandan genocide saw about 800,000 people lose their lives in the space of 100 days. It also started with carelessly uttered words of hate by public figures. If we ignore the lessons taught to us by history, we are bound to make the same mistakes that caused so much sorrow to so many people.

The people of South Africa are, in the main, a good people at heart — as evidenced by the outpouring of support and help for displaced foreigners during the recent troubles, as well as the condemnation of the violence. However, more needs to be done to educate ordinary South Africans that violence against an outsider is not the solution to poverty, because it will not solve anything. That being said, the xenophobia debate in South Africa should not be considered independent of its root cause, poverty, as only by addressing this issue will South Africa and all who reside within it be free to attain the peace and prosperity that this great nation so richly deserves.

Frank Acheampong

About Frank Acheampong

Frank W. Acheampong read law at the National University of Lesotho, spent a brief period with the University of Swaziland, and finished his studies at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth. Frank accumulated trial practice experience at the firm G. G. Nthethe & Co in Lesotho before moving to South Africa, where he worked at the Missionvale Law Clinic in Port Elizabeth. He then took up project management after acquiring an interest in the legalities and machinations of the construction industry.