So, those South Africans eh? What on earth has gotten into them? There are many root causes for such behavior, comprising many of the usual suspects: unemployment, poverty, disenfranchisement, homelessness, and so on. You could probably list them yourself. But why take out your frustrations on fellow Africans, albeit from different countries? My view is that it has a lot to do with a little something called perception. 

When things just aren’t working out, regardless of how hard you try, it is human nature to look to blame something or someone. In fact, it’s pretty logical because, if the failure isn’t internal, then it must be caused by external factors. And those pesky foreigners living in your midst, working actual jobs, owning homes and smiling their way to the bank are an easy enough target. After all, they have fewer rights, no extended family to speak of, and certainly no representatives to lobby, no village or clan that can stand up for them. 

The levels of empathy and understanding required to consider that maybe they do have it as hard as you, that maybe the reason they are able to smile is that they have faced worse back in their home countries, is difficult to reach when you are hungry. The old saying of a hungry man being an angry man does have truth to it. 

But that is not the perception that I am speaking of. What concerns me in this piece is what perception, exactly, led the criminals to so brazenly attack innocents, sometimes in broad daylight, and what turned bystanders into witless accomplices? For, let’s be clear, those standing by watching are also culpable in the assault and murders. They may have been unable to intervene at once for various reasons, but at the killing of a Mozambican man, Emmanuel Sithole, a photojournalist by the name of James Oatway was also present. While unable to intervene, he took a bunch of pictures, some of which you have probably seen. After the attackers left, he rushed the victim to first a clinic and then a hospital. By his own admission, bystanders took their time before helping him get Mr Sithole into the car.

South Africa has a population of about 52 million people, with about 2 million foreign nationals residing there (approximately 4% of the total population), according to official statistics. 31% of South Africans are estimated to be living in poverty (below $2/day), which is a huge enough number, until you realize that all other African countries (except Cameroon) have higher numbers. Mozambique has 91%, Nigeria is at 80%, even neighboring Lesotho hovers at around 61%. If you look at the Human Development Index (HDI), South Africa scores about 0.6 while Mozambique is stuck at 0.2, better only than Niger and Burundi. During a chat between opposition leaders and white farmers where the latter were being encouraged to hire more South African workers as opposed to foreigners, some of the farmers claimed that, in their view, the foreigners worked harder. This, if true, could be attributed the statistics pointed out above because, coming from deeper and more widespread poverty, they might be more inclined to work harder for less benefits than their contemporaries.

The sentiment isn’t all that new

Ghana Must Go

As I have already alluded, hard times require easy scapegoats. For an extreme example, one has only to consider Germany in the years between the two world wars. Humiliated in defeat, the Treaty of Versailles which ended World War One subjected the country to harsh penalties including accepting full responsibility for the war, the virtual dismantling of their army and paying the cost of the entire war, calculated to be £UK6.6billion. Back then, it was a ridiculous amount of money that Germany could not realistically hope to pay. Couple this with the enormous rebuilding that needed to be done, as well as the fact that around 2 million of their men (who would normally be expected to do the heavy lifting in rebuilding) had perished in the Great War, and you find yourself with a country with little hope and lots of anger.

Enter Adolph Hitler. Blaming the Jewish population for the country’s woes didn’t have to make sense, it just had to ring true in the minds of the people. Perception. Jews are famous for their industry, and they stand out due to their cultural practices, making them an easy target for illogical hate. Even those who were smart enough to know that it didn’t make sense could only stand by and watch, probably because they also knew prosperous Jews that they envied. The rest is history. 

For a less extreme version, we can hearken back to Nigeria in the early 1983. With the country’s economy stuttering after corruption had essentially crippled it, creating mass unemployment with little social welfare, we needed someone to take the fall. In these situations, it is best not to upset those whose countries provide foreign direct investment, otherwise times just get harder and then the government may have to face the wrath of the people. God forbid that happen. We decided instead to put the blame firmly on our fellow Africans who had come to Nigeria during the oil boom to find jobs. As our West African neighbors, Ghanaians were present in numbers, working and living peacefully. We then decided that African migrants were costing the Nigerian people their jobs. Luckily, we decided to “only” deport them. Nigeria reportedly deported about 2 million African migrants, an estimated 700,000 of whom were Ghanaians. Hence the coinage of the term, “Ghana must go”, a name gifted unto the all-purpose sacks they carried their belongings in.

The South African situation

I can’t speak to the circumstances that encouraged South Africans to go after foreigners in this instance but, even from this distance, there are a couple of things that stand out. 3, in fact. First, and most famously, the Zulu chief who reportedly blamed foreigners for the hardship of the people and called for them to leave. That was probably the final justification that the people involved needed to embark on their murderous spree, though it is by no means the only one.

Secondly, it is clear that the perception of foreigners laying claim to the country’s resources is one that had been growing for some time. This is evident in the bill that will be submitted by the South African president, Mr Jacob Zuma, to Parliament in February which seeks to make it illegal for non-citizens to own land in the country. They qualify it by claiming that it would only be applicable to arable land used in farming, but whatever the case, it is a clear sign that foreigners taking over is being viewed as a problem. And this is a bill that has reportedly been touted for the past two years by the government. While it may not be a call to arms per se, it comes off as another symptom of the thinking that helps to create the perceptions that lead to xenophobic attacks. 

Finally, the decision by the South African government to initially ignore the nature of these attacks, and label them simply as regular crimes was a poor choice because by refusing to proactively denounce the xenophobia, they made it permissible. Thankfully, that position has now been reversed and they appear to be taking proactive measures to curb the violence.

But the perception that South African society’s troubles are somehow caused by migrants also needs to be dealt with, though it will likely take some time. The protest march is a great start, but ignorance is best addressed with education (not necessarily formal) and facts. Xenophobic attacks seem to crop up in South Africa every few years and despite no firm statistics on the matter, it is widely believed that the attacks have actually increased since the end of apartheid. Everytime xenophobia rears its ugly head, the security forces are called, politicians make statements, and everything calms back down. For a while. So how do we inspire permanent change?

As this article succinctly points out, education is one of the best tools to combat such perceptions once they are identified as prevalent. For one thing, political statements sent out to media houses are not going to do the job, because a man with no money, no job and no home will likely not be reading your newspaper. The idea that foreigners are to blame for there being neither jobs nor homes needs to be properly addressed in ways that everyone can understand. As one opposition leader, Julius Malema, said during a peace march the evening before soldiers were deployed to help keep the peace, “Our people are in poverty and they get tempted to believe [the] simplest solutions; that if we drive away the foreigners, we will work tomorrow. But the reality is that there are no jobs. Even if these people leave, we will still be unemployed.”