Migrants ‘living in fear’ as xenophobia rises ahead of South Africa’s elections

Migrants ‘living in fear’ as xenophobia rises ahead of South Africa’s elections
  • Right-wing political forces and populist politicians are tapping into anti-migrant sentiments in South Africa to boost chances for 2024 polls
  • Without intervention, next wave of ‘xenophobic attacks could be worse than what we saw in previous years,’ says Hassan Logart, an official of People’s Media Consortium
  • High unemployment, high inequality main reasons for anti-migrant hate, says Dale McKinley of Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia

By Agencies

JOHANNESBURG: One evening a few months ago, Piri Musa was at his tuck shop in Soweto, a sprawling township near Johannesburg, when a group of people showed up to ask him for his identification documents.

Musa, who is in his early 30s, had no choice but to show them the documents, though he knew well what that would mean.

“When they saw that I was originally from Malawi, they gave me an ultimatum to shut down my business in 30 days,” he told Anadolu.

“Otherwise, they said they would throw me out by force.”

Musa has since moved out of Soweto, where he had worked hard for over five years to build a life for himself, his wife and two children.

“If you refuse, they will ransack your business, or even beat you up,” said Musa, who moved to South Africa seven years ago, narrating an experience that is far from unique to him.

Many other people of foreign origin have faced such incidents in South Africa, and the problem is only growing worse as the country moves toward crucial general elections next year.

Right-wing political forces and populist politicians are tapping into anti-migrant sentiments to boost their chances at the polls.

They accuse migrants of taking jobs that would have been for South Africans, paint them as criminal elements, and claim that they are overburdening the country’s social services.

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, migrants from Africa and Asia have flocked to South Africa for work, business, education, and asylum.

According to the latest census results, there are over 2 million migrants in South Africa, a country of some 62 million, with the majority from neighbouring Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Mozambique.

There are also many from other African countries such as Nigeria, Somalia, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as Asian nations like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China.

South Africa also has about 250,000 refugees and asylum seekers, according to the latest UN statistics.

These people are the main targets of movements like Operation Dudula, a vigilante group turned political party that is leading a campaign to shut down businesses owned by foreign nationals.

In the Zulu language widely spoken in Southern Africa, Dudula means to drive out or evict, and this group has been threatening and forcing African and Asian immigrants to leave their communities.

Unemployment, inequality fuelling hate

South Africa witnessed its worst spell of xenophobic violence targeting migrants in May 2008, when at least 62 people were killed, hundreds injured and at least 100,000 displaced as mobs targeted homes of migrants across the country.

With the increasingly xenophobic rhetoric being pushed by Dudula and other such groups, the fear is a repeat of that level of violence.

Without timely interventions, “the next xenophobic attacks could be worse than what we saw in previous years,” Hassan Logart, an official of the People’s Media Consortium, an advocacy group focused on the rights of local communities, told Anadolu.

He pointed out that this dangerous rhetoric is not just coming from opposition figures or vigilante groups like Dudula, but even from within the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Dale McKinley, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia (KAAX), warned that the danger of violence is high due to the current socioeconomic conditions in South Africa.

Unemployment is a major issue in Africa’s most industrialized nation, currently hovering around a staggering 32%.

“Migrants who came to the country in the last 15 years are seen to be competing for limited resources in the same space with locals,” said McKinley.

“This is in a country with high unemployment and high inequality, which creates a particular situation, whether perceived or real.”

He puts the current crisis down to “political opportunism” and right-wing groups “targeting migrants to score cheap political points.”

“There are already attacks taking place on small shops owned by foreigners. People are being evicted. There have been regular attacks,” he said.

However, McKinley said chances of escalation are still low.

“We don’t expect large-scale attacks, but isolated incidents could continue,” he said.

‘Migrants are scapegoats’

The threat of spiralling violence, however, is still looming large. A particular reason is that the message being pushed by movements such as Dudula is resonating with some segments of a society facing economic challenges.

“Migrants have driven us out of business. We pay taxes, they don’t. We have no choice but to support Dudula and other groups to drive them out of our townships,” a resident of Soweto told Anadolu, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We don’t want them in our spaces. Let them go back home.”

All of this, according to Mametlwe Sebei, president of the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa, is a result of politicians using migrants to pass off responsibility for their own failures.

“There are now more counterrevolutionary fascist parties in South Africa, compared to what we saw in previous election campaigns,” he said.

Some parties have been telling their voters that they could not deliver services because they did not plan for the extra number of people, he added.

However, many people are aware of the truth, he said, pointing to Black working class South Africans who live alongside migrants in inner areas of Johannesburg, where there have been protests against growing xenophobia.

“They know that the real problem of housing or poverty is not migrants. It is the government that is failing,” said Sebei.

Whatever the near future brings for migrants in South Africa, the current situation is one of immense apprehension.

“I am living in fear,” said Yomba Johnny, a young Congolese refugee who runs a small corner store in Tembisa, on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

“There is just so much hate against foreigners here right now.”