The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Black lives don’t matter in xenophobic South Africa

Foreign nationals and members of various South African civil society groups take part in an anti-xenophobia march through Cape Town, South Africa. (Nic Bothma/ European Pressphoto Agency)

Redi Tlhabi is a radio and television journalist from Johannesburg. 

Last week was an ugly, humiliating one for South Africa; a country once considered a jewel of democracy on the African continent has been gripped by a wave of xenophobic violence. In a matter of days, more than 30 stores belonging to foreign nationals were shut down after intense attacks and looting by locals in several townships. We are breathing a sigh of relief that there has been no loss of life.

This is not the first time that foreigners have faced attacks in South Africa’s townships and provinces. In 2008, the country’s streets were ablaze, literally, with violence against foreigners. Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, a national from Mozambique, was beaten, stabbed and set on fire in broad daylight. A police officer tried in vain to douse the flames, but it was too late. Nhamuave died. And there has been no justice for him. Sixty-two people, including South Africans, were killed at that time and more than 100,000 were displaced. Last year, more than 20 shops were looted in one area alone, and foreign nationals had to flee their homes.

On Friday, with the government’s endorsement, citizens from Pretoria, the capital, marched against foreign nationals in an anti-immigrant protest. The government said that the march was an agitation against crime in South Africa, which has been endemic in this society for many years. Yet the protesters did not march to police headquarters; instead they went to the Home Affairs office, which is in charge of immigration in the country.

The xenophobic violence tends to have a racial element. Nigerians, Somalis, Malawians, Pakistanis and Zimbabweans are often the targets of this prejudice. Perhaps it reflects the complex truth about South Africa’s xenophobia — that it is never just a rejection of a different identity but also a lament for the economic exclusion experienced by black South Africans, or all black Africans, for that matter. The acts of violence are specifically targeted at African and Asian migrants. White migrants are safe. They own businesses and property and generally go about their lives peacefully. They are seen as providers of work and capital, but black ones are seen as encroachments and threats. They are from the margins of our society, and even the language used to describe them — illegal immigrants, illegal aliens, outsiders — creates an “us and them” dynamic. They are dirty, they are criminals, they are drug peddlers — common accusations that are articulated boldly on radio and television.

It is surreal as we watch how here and in the United States, black lives really don’t matter. Even in a majority black country, the government is not decisive or unequivocal in its condemnation, choosing instead to obfuscate and sanitize this xenophobia by calling it something else, such as “criminal acts.” These are hate crimes, no different from the killing of Indian engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla in the United States. The suspect reportedly asked him and a companion whether they had valid visas and shouted that they should “get out of my country.” This sounds so familiar. Migrants in South Africa are constantly told to “go back home.” We have not experienced random shootings by citizens, but rather a well-orchestrated, mass uprising by multitudes. And in this way, individuals escape personal responsibility for hate crimes.

Nelson Mandela, the founding father of our democracy, said: “South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity’s belief in justice. … Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”

We have failed. According to the Migration Policy Institute, South Africa displays one of the highest levels of xenophobia in the world. In the past decade, foreigners have been blamed for every malaise under the sun — “They are stealing our jobs,” “committing crimes” and, of course, “taking our women.” High levels of unemployment — especially youth unemployment, which averaged 51 percent between 2013 and 2016 — creates a fertile environment for foreign workers to be scapegoats, despite the fact that foreign-born migrants make up only 1.6 million of South Africa’s population of about 55 million.

South Africans must remember the sagacity and generosity extended to us in our time of need. African countries took on South Africa’s liberation movements when they were banned by apartheid. They provided a home and education for their families. Some of these governments provided financial help to the party that is in government in South Africa today. I am hoping that the divisions that colonialism and racism tried to engineer in our psyche will not prevail. I am hoping that citizens who endeavor to make their countries “great again” will not do so at the expense of basic decency and justice.