In South Africa, new intolerance

Rising tide of xenophobia is directed mainly toward African immigrants

November 27, 2006|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The stereotypes are nasty: Zimbabweans steal jobs; Nigerians deal drugs; Somali merchants force local shops out of business with cut-rate prices.

These are some of the generalizations that contribute to a rising tide of xenophobia that is directed mainly at other Africans. The sentiment against foreigners is starkly at odds with the post-apartheid image of South Africa as a "rainbow nation" with arms open to people of every race, ethnicity and nationality. In many cases it is being expressed through violence.

Police say 21 Somali shopkeepers have been killed this year in the poor townships around Cape Town. In Limpopo province, Pakistani merchants were beaten after being accused of abducting children. And in Johannesburg, Zimbabweans who fled their country's meltdown have been exploited by employers and shunned by South Africans.

Though xenophobia is common worldwide, South Africa's brand seems especially virulent. One in five South Africans wants a ban on new immigrants and two-thirds back strict limits, according to a 2004 study by the Southern African Migration Project. The authors called this an "extremely restrictive view by international standards."

The problem has caused so much alarm that the Department of Home Affairs has created a counter-xenophobia unit. One goal is to bring communities together in hopes of easing suspicions. Another is to educate immigration officers and police who have often been cited in unlawful arrests and detention of foreigners.

The unit's chief, George Masanabo, said the initiative will require the involvement of government agencies, businesses and nonprofit groups. Figures are murky, but he said there "could be 2 million" foreigners out of a population of 47 million.

"This is quite an insurmountable task," Masanabo said.

There is more at stake than South Africa's reputation, experts say. Xenophobia discourages foreigners from investing in homes or businesses out of fear that their property will be taken or destroyed.

The "us vs. them" mentality seems unlikely to abate much as long as the unemployment rate remains high: Nationally, it is estimated at 40 percent, and it is often twice that in poorer areas. Yet, for many on the continent, South Africa remains a promised land - a place where success merely requires hard work.

Among many South Africans the bitterness is palpable.

"Why did the government let them in?" demanded Veronica Douman, a shopkeeper in Delft township, near Cape Town, referring to her newly arrived Somali competitors. "Most of our people have no work."

Even Masanabo, the head of the counter-xenophobia unit, seems to blame Somali refugees for the attacks they have suffered. He suggested that if Somalis were to agree with their South African competitors to fix prices, it would defuse tensions.

"When they compete on price, it should be agreed," Masanabo said. "As it stands, they don't see eye to eye."

In the view of some experts, the decades-long era of apartheid, which ended in 1994, laid the groundwork for today's xenophobia. Aside from migrant miners and farm workers, most black South Africans had little contact with Africans from outside the country, because of tight border controls established by the white-minority government.

"During apartheid, [black South Africans] were continually shown images of the rest of the continent as violent, corrupt and dangerous," said Loren Landau, director of the Forced Migration Studies Program at the University of the Witwatersrand. "They were fed an odd mix of superiority and inferiority: `Black South Africans are not African.'"

After 1994, the new, black-led government of the African National Congress initiated a national campaign to build social cohesion among ethnic groups that historically had been kept apart and at odds with one another.

One negative byproduct of this, according to the 2004 study, "has been a growth in intolerance toward outsiders. South Africa's redefinition of the boundaries of citizenship and belonging is based on the creation of a `new other': the `noncitizen,' the `foreigner,' the `alien.'"

Because apartheid policies deprived them of good schooling, many South Africans are finding that they are not as well educated as immigrants from Kenya, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.

"That's got to hurt when you think you're superior and you encounter this person who is smarter or doing better in business than you are," Landau said.

Such encounters, in turn, lead to notions of superiority among immigrants, many of whom deride South Africans as lazy or incompetent.

"It's a vicious cycle," Landau said. "It fosters continued distrust and resentment."

The anger felt by immigrants stems from another factor peculiar to South Africa: During apartheid, scores of ANC exiles found haven in nearby African nations. People from those countries often feel unwelcome here now, when black South Africans no longer need them.

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