Xenophobia in South Africa: horrible cheap excuses for uncomfortable realities

Many politicians and supposed “activists” use the cheap excuse that foreigners are guilty of abusing our system to hide corruption and failure, often of their own making.

On 26 August, Doctors Without Borders, a reputable international humanitarian agency known the world over, reported that members of “Operation Dudula”  are blocking black foreigners from accessing crucial healthcare in Gauteng. The supposed “activists” of Operation Dudula have gone on to say that “we are sick of foreigners. They must all go”. This highlights the worrying trend in South Africa of rising xenophobia, which will have disastrous consequences if we do not address it. 

Xenophobia comes from the Greek words “Xenos”, which means foreigner, and “phobia”, which means fear. Hence, the term encapsulates hatred of foreigners (generally due to fear) which translates into discrimination and often violence being directed at foreigners. In South Africa, xenophobic sentiments are held overwhelmingly by black, low-income South Africans against other African immigrants. Like in many countries (the likes of the US, UK, France) where such beliefs and acts would be considered racist, South African “xenophobes” blame others for all sorts of social problems such as unemployment and compromised access to social services, claiming that foreigners “steal” jobs or social service opportunities. Some government officials also blame foreign nationals for most of the violent crimes and drug trafficking in South Africa, despite the absence of SAPS statistics showing this to be the case. 

This seems more like scapegoating than anything else. Sure, foreign nationals have been guilty of crimes and abusing social services. However, that isn’t why our social services, police and job market don’t work effectively. Many politicians and supposed “activists” use the cheap excuse that foreigners are guilty of abusing our system to hide corruption and failure, often of their own making. The worst thing is that they then go on to deny that their anti-foreigner rhetoric is even xenophobic in the first place. As columnist Barney Mthombothi put it: “The mess we are in should be laid at the door of the government. It is feckless, cowardly and incompetent.” 

We shouldn’t be fooled into believing this narrative of African foreigners being the reason our society is in such bad shape. On the contrary, we need to acknowledge the hard reality that these problems (unemployment, underperforming public services) are actually due to our national government’s failures, and the fact that it has become complacent, because we haven’t held them accountable via the ballot box. Being able to blame someone else for your own mistakes is always a lot easier than owning up to them and addressing the issues at hand.  

Another reason we should stand up to xenophobia is that it is a disaster for our reputation abroad. How can we be taken seriously as a viable partner if we keep tolerating attacks on the citizens of potential allies? South Africans abroad unfairly bear the brunt of these mistakes; there have been reports of South African-owned stores being targeted in retribution for attacks back in South Africa. This risks creating nasty cycles of hatred and animosity which we don’t need. Mthombothi said it well when he noted:

“All the extraordinary accomplishments by this young democracy will now be sullied and overwhelmed by the stench of xenophobia.”  

With all of that being said, what can YOU do?

First, speak up. When you are confronted by xenophobia and its effects, call it out. Second, and most importantly, factor that in when you vote. Do you want politicians who will denounce this bigotry for what it is and address the underlying issues, even if it might lead to some uncomfortable questions? Or would you rather have the “same old”, politicians who deny that xenophobia is even a problem and who exploit xenophobic sentiment to excuse their failures?  



Cover image source available here.