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Face the truth about xenophobia

There are many reasons, but one stands out.

As Africa counts the costs of the devastating xenophobic attacks by South Africans on other Africans, and as the world searches for underlying reasons, it has to be said that South Africa is bearing the brunt of blatant and prolonged economic failures by other African states.

That’s the brutally frank underlying reason. Everything else is a side-show.

People have been huffing and puffing, attributing insulting theories and stereotypes to and about people they hardly know.

Take for instance the South African Human Rights Commission report which says: “…that many South Africans lack the knowledge of and contact with foreigners [and this] is the underlying cause of xenophobic attacks . . .”

This is simply not true.

South Africans (I guess they are talking about black South Africans) have contact with the so-called foreigners. The so-called foreigners, particularly Ethiopians, Somalis and Pakistanis live among black South Africans in the townships and rural areas. They have been living with them for years. Therefore they have contact with them and therefore they know them. Please do not make a theoretical issue of this.

Sociologically, on-the-ground dynamics are complex and varied. But economically, South Africa is an attractive base.

From a human capital perspective, highly educated and experienced African professionals from actuaries to scientists, derivatives traders to specialist lawyers, investment bankers to footballers come here to make an honest living. Qualified artisans come here too. But also shoemakers, waiters and waitresses, bar men/women, sweepers, cleaners, maids, security guards, traders and hustlers also flood our shores.

The latter groups are a thorn in the side of some South Africans. How can you have someone coming all the way from Senegal to mend shoes on the pavements of Johannesburg for half the price? This person will definitely bump heads with a local shoe-maker who has been repairing shoes for many years.

What about a Zimbabwean brick-layer, qualified, diligent and super-efficient (they usually are) who will build your perimeter wall in record time, for half the price. They don’t whinge. They don’t whine and they don’t drink on the job.

These Zimbabweans come from a country which, just over a decade ago, was a bread basket of the Southern African region with its surplus of food. But of course today more than 40% of Zimbabweans live in poverty – not a fault of their own. So, they have to come here and offer their quality services at half the price to the detriment of local artisans who are left seething with anger. The anger keeps boiling under the surface at that level of social stratification until one day it explodes into full-blown xenophobic attacks. And then, everyone wonders why? Who wouldn’t be angry? Out of the blue, you wake up to the fact that you cannot compete!

It is simple. It’s about price.

But who is to blame? Why does a Somali come all the way to trade in the streets of Durban? Why does a Zimbabwean come all the way to wait tables in Sandton? Why does a Zimbabwean teacher come all the way to work in a bar in Johannesburg at half the salary asked by the locals? What’s wrong with Harare? What’s wrong with Bulawayo?

Fact is, like many other African countries, Zimbabwe is struggling economically. These fellow Africans have been failed by their own leaders. It’s been one disaster of economic mis-management by the African leadership after another. And that’s a very hard pill to swallow.

Over the last 30 years, world-wide absolute poverty has fallen sharply (from about 40% to 20%). But in African countries, the percentage numbers have barely fallen. Over 40% of people in Sub-Saharan Africa live in absolute poverty.

Admittedly, Africa has made some progress in reducing poverty, and in fact, some of the continent’s economies are growing very fast, albeit from a low base. Many countries have seen major improvements in education, health and living standards as their economies grow. Already, there’s more than a tacit agreement among credible analysts, economists and other high-profile commentators that the next decades belong to Africa in terms of economic growth hence the cry (Africa Rising!!!).

But at the same time, many African countries are struggling with the legacy of colonial rule. This is no excuse. Who is specifically to blame is a totally different argument. But evidence is there for everyone to see. There have been absolute economic failures and the African leadership has been sleeping on the job.

Despite the apparent growth, some Africans are being left behind. In fact, two-thirds of the United Nations’ list of the countries classified as those at risk of remaining in the doldrums of economic hardship, are in Africa.

South Africa has its own economic hardships. A sluggish economy, rising unemployment and mounting poverty among South Africans at the lower levels of the economic ladder are of major concern.

There is also the issue of space or territoriality – either perceived or real.

Either way you look at it, there was always going to be a problem as far as the issue of space was concerned.

Space . . . ! Yes, space!

When a group (even an individual) invades the space of another “without permission”, negative reactions are inevitable. Rightly or wrongly, people feel obliged to defend their territory against “invasion”.

Who are these people? What are they doing here? That’s generally the mood on the ground. Those of you who do not hide behind your electrified walls, should know this.

So, we are bearing the brunt of economic failures by the African continent. Some of the leaders are trying hard, but others are still twiddling their thumbs.

But what is the cost of these xenophobic attacks to the South African economy? Is there a cost?

Yes, there will be an economic cost over a period of time. But it’s very difficult to quantify right now. It could be billions over time, especially on the retail side. Whether we deny it or not, these traders will always pay VAT and that goes to the fiscus.

And what about South African companies doing business elsewhere in Africa? On that score we will have to wait and see. 

But as long as many parts of Africa continue to flounder economically, South Africa is bound to continue carrying the cross. And that is very, very unfortunate indeed.






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