South African politicians are risking conflict between different local ethnic groups and races by encouraging xenophobia against migrants from other nations on the continent, the leader of the official opposition said.
Two new political parties, ActionSA and Patriotic Alliance, made significant gains in municipal elections last year by running anti-migrant campaigns.
The leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, the third-biggest political party, led delegations to restaurants in the economic hub of Gauteng demanding to know if they employed foreigners and the African National Congress-led government said it will end a special permit that’s allowed 180 000 Zimbabweans to live and work legally in the country since 2009.
“They are going to saddle a tiger that they will never be able to ride,” John Steenhuisen, the leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance said at Chatham House in London, where he gave an on-the-record briefing Monday. “You may think you are starting a bush fire in the foreigner camp, but I can tell you that that fire will jump the fence in South Africa and eventually we will have a full blown race war on our hands.”
South Africa, whose society was divided along racial and ethnic lines under apartheid until 1994, has wrestled with anti-foreigner sentiment. In 2008 xenophobic riots saw about 50,000 people displaced and about 60 killed, including a Mozambican man who was set alight by a mob. There were similar episodes in 2015 and 2019 and in April a 44-year-old Zimbabwean man was stoned and burned to death.
Still, the DA’s own record on issues of xenophobia has been checkered.
Herman Mashaba, the South African cosmetics entrepreneur who founded ActionSA, represented the DA as mayor of Johannesburg from 2016 until 2019 and frequently outlined plans to drive undocumented migrants from the city.
Ahead of national elections in 2019, its then spokesman on immigration, Jacques Julius, proposed a “humane” deportation program for undocumented migrants whom he said were a major source of crime and who took welfare checks and anti-AIDS drugs meant for South Africans.
‘Pile of ashes’
Now DA officials are campaigning against xenophobia, Steenhuisen said. Politicians fanning anti-migrant sentiment should exercise caution, he said.
“Do not incite and inflame something which you know could see the country turn into a pile of ashes,” he said.