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Xenophobia: Time for reflection

THE latest storm of xenophobic attacks in South Africa’s killing fields seems to have subsided — at least for now — as South Africans and other Africans rose to confront the wave of deadly violence across cities head-on, yet the winds of animosity are still blowing.

While previous tides of xenophobia swept through South Africa, largely helped to free itself from apartheid by Africans, leaving far more black victims dead but without serious consequences, the current round of violence provoked uproar locally, across the region and on the continent, even abroad.

Authorities had to run around fire-fighting, while citizens scrambled to help to douse the flames of hate. The events, stirred by Zulu King Godwill Zwelithini’s call for foreigners to “pack their bags and go” despite his subsequent denials, have also prompted some soul-searching as researchers seek to explain why the rainbow nation dream is now crumbling amid dangerous instability and violence.

As a result, a credible body of scholarly literature has emerged exploring the many causes of xenophobia in serious and sophisticated ways, but practical measures are needed to stem the problem. It’s all well and good to engage in academic debates, but only informed practical approaches can resolve the crisis.

The looming negative impact on South Africa’s economy, relations with other African countries, and charges of complicity, may be a harbinger of worse things to come unless authorities decisively tackle the menace. South Africa’s xenophobic violence raises so many complex issues and questions.

Why is South Africa such a violent society? Why does violence seem to lie just below the surface? Are South Africans generally xenophobic? How deep, far and wide is xenophobia in South Africa? Is it institutionalised? Why do they seem to hate black immigrants more than white foreigners? Is it self-hate, an identity crisis or misdirected anger, or all of this?

Why do South Africans want to blame foreigners for their problems? Is it scapegoating? Is because the country is flooded with immigrants disrupting their social system and stealing jobs and business opportunities? Is it a legacy of apartheid? What’s the role of perceptions in this? Why do they seem to think violence is the solution? Why are authorities sluggish?

Also why are foreigners flooding South Africa? Why can’t they stay at or go back home? Is it because of political and socio-economic instability? Why do they destroy their own countries and run away? Is there a connection between economic failure in most African countries and xenophobic violence in South Africa?

In short, what are the root causes and dynamics of xenophobia in South Africa and possible solutions? Is it not better to deal with the causes, not symptoms of the problem? Beyond heated condemnations, pontifications and debate, what is to be done?

Researcher Bronwyn Harris came up with a hypothesis of xenophobia to explain the phenomenon which has scapegoating, isolation and bio-cultural dimensions.

Scapegoating relates to blaming of foreigners for local problems, while isolation suggests hostility towards immigrants is due to international isolation.

It postulates contemporary xenophobia in South Africa is partly a consequence of apartheid. The bio-cultural premise offers an explanation for the asymmetrical targeting of black immigrants by South Africans.

Beyond theories, it must be said South Africa has a long history of absorbing immigrants who contributed a lot to its development, although at the same time they also fuel problems, including cutthroat competition for scarce resources and crime.

Xenophobia can’t be separated from historical alienation, inequalities, unemployment and poverty, among other issues. But violence can’t be a solution.

Going forward, there is need for a change of mindset, service delivery and creating of more economic opportunities in South Africa, as well as stabilisation of other African countries to stem the surge of immigrants which is fuelling anger and conflict.

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