What is happening in South Africa?

Parvathi Vasudevan

The situation mirrors the frustration among the vast majority of poor black South Africans. They assume that local jobs which are exclusively theirs are being “stolen” by illegal and cheap labour mostly from Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Ethiopia.

South Africa, the rainbow nation, recently experienced troubling times, described as xenophobia. Just before mid-May, violence erupted in some of the townships around Johannesburg when sections of black people attacked other blacks. Very quickly, the violence escalated and by end May, about 100,000 people were displaced, hundreds badly beaten and close to 60 died. For the first time since the end of the apartheid in 1994, the Army had to be called in to assist the police in restoring order.

Most of the affected were immigrants from Zimbabwe, some from Mozambique, Malawi, Ethiopia, Swaziland, Lesotho and even Nigeria. There was extensive loss of property which the immigrants had acquired over years of hard work and often constituted the savings of a lifetime. The media were critical of the handling of the post-violence situation by the security personnel. The victims could not complain as most of them were undocumented residents in South Africa. Calling it “destructive divisiveness,” former President Nelson Mandela reminded his people of the timely help extended by South Africa’s neighbours during the apartheid regime’s excesses. Nobel Laureate Bishop Tutu also urged his countrymen to refrain from violence as all Africans are their brothers’ keepers, especially in difficult times.

However, the situation mirrors the frustration among the vast majority of poor black South Africans. They assume that local jobs which are exclusively theirs are being “stolen” by illegal and cheap labour mostly from Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Ethiopia. They are unwilling to accept that migration of labour from the rest of Africa into South Africa is due to slow growth in total employment in the rest of Africa in the last decade. Herein lay the explanation for the xenophobia. In fact, as early as 1997, the South African Human Rights Commission had identified massive migration into South Africa as a major cause for xenophobia with consequences for democracy and human security.

On paper, there is amity among the multi-racial, multi-cultural people of South Africa, reinforced largely by the charismatic Nelson Mandela. Several measures were instituted to integrate all sections of society. Most important of these was the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programme as the best and sustainable approach to the development of the country. The BEE has been a signature programme which emphasises that the financial services industry be expanded to include the black majority. It entails not merely their participation in development and management of skills but also in the transfer of ownership. This has resulted in the emergence of a new booming black middle class referred to as “black diamonds” who often flaunt their status.

Then there are the outsiders, often referred to as “foreigners,” who have successfully made South Africa their abode taking advantage of the high pace of its growth. The country is the wealthiest in the 14-member Southern African Development Community. South Africa’s mineral wealth has given handsome financial returns while agriculture’s performance has been fairly good and physical infrastructure largely in place. GDP per head according to the IMF in South Africa is $3827, the highest in Sub-Saharan Africa. Growth has averaged over five per cent in the last three years.

Competing for scarce resources

It has been South Africa’s ability to do well as compared to the rest of Africa that has served as a magnet for attracting two categories of outsiders to migrate to its cities and peri-urban areas: they are the highly skilled and well trained professionals and the not-so-skilled. The latter, however, are often enterprising, willing to take risks and are prepared to invest small capital in small and medium business ventures such as taxi services and convenience or corner stores where locals are employed. Foreigners also work, often on abysmal wages as miners, farmers, construction workers and household help. Over time, they have been competing with the locals for scarce resources such as housing in the informal settlements, access to primary healthcare and education facilities.

What really triggered the recent violence according to most observers is the fact that most of the houses earmarked especially for South Africa’s disadvantaged under the Reconstruction and Development Programme have been purchased by these “foreigners,” often using unfair means.

Unfortunately for South Africa, the number of poor black South Africans with little or no education, no skills, and no access to capital who were unable to take advantage of the opportunities of an expanding economy has swelled rapidly. Forty per cent of South Africans, according to the Congress of South African Trade Unions, are unemployed. Economic reforms of the post-apartheid years have failed to spread the available gains more evenly. Twenty per cent of South Africa’s population remains illiterate even today.

Life has become tougher for the poor South African black especially now with the escalating food and fuel prices. This acted as a trigger. What the marginalised and frustrated sections of South Africans want immediately are security in terms of jobs, housing, healthcare, affordable education and public transport. They too want to enjoy the fruits of democracy. As Winnie Mandela put it so aptly — the problem in South Africa is “not xenophobia, but a reflection of the conditions in which people live that is very conducive to violence.” In such a situation, outsiders are seen more as intruders and not victims. And clashes could flare up any time. There has also been a phenomenal increase in crimes. Visitors to the main cities of South Africa are therefore warned to be careful and not to venture out once it is dusk even as affluent South Africans themselves live behind barbed wires.

At another level, inter-country migration has taken place with the move of the skilled and better placed South Africans to the developed world in their search for greener pastures — positions which are now being filled by well-trained personnel from within Southern Africa, especially Zimbabwe. Most Zimbabweans move as the Zimbabwean economy is a shambles given the massive and rising inflation, loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector, and failed agriculture owing to the unsound policies of Robert Mugabe.

Fifty per cent of the people seeking work permits in South Africa in recent times have been Zimbabweans with more education and improved skills. Several of these migrants include civil aviation experts, IT professionals, engineers, chartered accountants, geologists, paramedical and medical personnel and teachers of physics, chemistry and mathematics. It is estimated that approximately one million skilled Zimbabweans have voted with their feet into South Africa. It is worth noting that the Mbeki government has announced that it would be recruiting about 2000 foreign teachers between 2008 and 2010.

As the violence spread, some of the governments have made attempts to re-integrate their citizens within their own country. Malawians were the first to be evacuated from South Africa followed by Mozambique. It has been a very traumatic time for Zimbabweans who, even as they feel unsafe in South Africa, dread to return to Zimbabwe in view of the highly fluid and tense political and a fast deteriorating economic situation. This poses a moral dilemma for the South African policymakers as to whether they should promote reverse migration to Zimbabwe: they have to factor in the growing resentment at home given the adverse effects of continued migration. They have to, at the same time, ensure that the colours of the rainbow nation that has prided in non-violence, truth and reconciliation as guiding features are kept intact. This is a challenge requiring South Africa to actively help resolve the Zimbabwean political impasse through mediation. Otherwise, the cost of maintaining internal social harmony could be very high in the near to medium term.

(The author, a retired academic from the Centre for African Studies, University of Mumbai, lives now in Abuja, Nigeria.)

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