South Africa: Economic Challenge, Not “Xenophobia”

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[International: South Africa]

Lately, there has been a torrent of news reports about violence in South Africa directed against “foreigners.”

The mass media have glibly christened this development as “xenophobia.” One would suspect that the victims were immigrants from China, Japan, USA, Britain or Australia. However, when you learn that they are Malawians, Mozambicans, Tswanas, Zambians and Zimbabweans, you come to the conclusion that the term xenophobia here is a miscall.

In the true Pan African sense, Africans are not foreigners to other Africans let alone populations from countries that are South Africa's neighbors. They comprise a substantial part of the South African population. One would be seriously off the mark by referring to a Khumalo family from Zimbabwe as foreigners in South Africa. The same applies to a Malawian Phiri family in Zimbabwe.

The population of South Africa is 48 million. The country's economy so far has not had great success in sustaining this number. The government's record of achievement is patchy at best. Many pre-1994 independence promises have yet to be met. Poverty level is still high. Those highly skilled and politically connected are thriving. Unemployment is 23%. Housing shortage is an epidemic.

The 3 million Zimbabweans that have been pouring into South Africa recently are likely to create a lot of anxiety among South African citizens. Thus, is reaction caused by apprehension and uneasiness warranted? The answer is, yes. There are several ways in which people can express their sentiments. Violence and crime are not among them.

Most of the immigrants in South Africa are housed in the Cyril Ramaphosa Settlement Camp in Johannesburg. Partly due to their visibility, they have become easy targets of unscrupulous malcontents. According to this group, immigrants are responsible for high crime. The government will not deal with them for political reasons.

Because they are willing to take on any job at any pay scale, they tend to undercut wages. Thus, White employees, who control most jobs, prefer them. They are easily exploitable since they have no rights to claim.

There is also a growing category of immigrants that are posing a threat to South Africans of an entrepreneurial bend. Many Somalis and Ethiopians have established themselves as successful shopkeepers in townships. They are viewed as usurpers albeit unjustifiably. Rather than malign them, locals should compete with them for business opportunities.

The challenge for South Africa and the international community is to put together a set of devices to ameliorate the economic, political and social circumstances of relevant adjoining states. President Thabo Mbeki was chosen to do just that in Zimbabwe by the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) organization.

The situation there is a case in point. The misguided view that the crisis will go away by pretending it does not exist, deserves rejection. Brothers and sisters in South Africa should not be forced into a stance where they have to kill and maim their brothers and sisters coming from across the borders because their economic pie is shrinking.

Dr. Zwana is a retired Professor and administrator of the State University of New York system
(SUNY) and former Resident Director of Syracuse University’s Study Abroad Program in Zimbabwe.



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