Prejudice: Fundamentally Human?
Are we doomed to grab what we can for ourselves and our kin, ignoring the big picture until the world burns?
South Africa has a track record of xenophobic incidents. In 2008, violent attacks left 62 immigrants dead. South Africans typically perceive migrants as "stealing" jobs and opportunities – but empirical data reveal that there's not much truth to this assumption.
After three centuries of colonialism, apartheid and white minority rule, South Africa finally became a multi-ethnic and democratic "rainbow nation" in 1994. However, although institutionalised racism and segregation have been officially abolished, the damage done in the past continues to define space, opportunities, life trajectories and social interactions in the country. However, the persistent socio-economic divide between black and white is not the only important rift that remains salient. There is also a pervasive and violent relationship between South Africans and the many foreign nationals in the country.
"Levels of anti-foreign sentiment in South Africa are amongst the highest in the world."
Levels of anti-foreign sentiment in South Africa are amongst the highest in the world. Its expressions range from street-level abuse to discrimination by government officials and on-going bouts of popular xenophobic violence. In May 2008, rising tensions culminated in a series of attacks on foreigners as of yet unparalleled in scope, intensity and geographical reach. Over the course of a mere few weeks, 62 people died, almost 700 were injured, dozens raped and 100,000 or more displaced. The gruesome images of Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave set alight and killed in the township of Ramaphosa made headlines around the world. An important less well-known fact is that a third of those killed in the May 2008 attacks were South African citizens of minority ethnic groups or domestic migrants who were also categorised as threatening "Others".
Many commentators and government officials in particular claimed that these tragic events had come more or less "out of the blue". Yet researchers have been recording incidents of violence against foreign nationals ever since the country's transition to democracy and expressing their serious concern about it for years. And the violence hasn't stopped. Quite the opposite in fact: it seems to have been on the rise again since 2011, getting worryingly close to the same levels present just before the 2008 attacks.
Both historically and today, South Africa is the region's major migration destination. This is due to its economic strength on the one hand, and the relative poverty, protracted unrest and dearth of livelihood earning opportunities in other (Southern) African countries on the other hand. While migration is nothing new for post-apartheid South Africa, migration streams have both significantly increased and diversified since 1994. Regardless of these changes, foreigners still only account for less than 4% of the country's population. This fact stands in sharp contrast to perceptions of immigration amongst South Africans.
"Metaphors of catastrophe, threat, burden and drain dominate discourses on immigration."
There is a widespread sense that large numbers of "illegal aliens" are flooding into South Africa, that they "steal" jobs, opportunities and resources, pose a threat to the country's security and constitute a major obstacle to social and economic transformation. Metaphors of catastrophe, threat, burden and drain dominate official as well as public discourses on immigration.
Interestingly, research shows that negative stereotypes about foreigners are rarely based on first-hand contact or personal experience. Indeed, empirically most of the concern levelled against immigration is unwarranted. Numbers of migrants are much smaller than most South Africans believe them to be and there is no indication that foreigners are disproportionally involved in criminal activities or place massive strains on social services.
"Many migrants have a positive effect on the national economy."
In fact, according to research findings, migrants are much more likely to become victims than perpetrators of crime. Migrants also tend to be young, healthy and entrepreneurial and are thus relatively unlikely to need health care or other social services. While in certain localised settings, such as mining and agriculture, migrants do in fact compete with locals for the very same jobs, many other migrants are self-employed, invest in the country, pay for services, create job opportunities for South Africans, pay taxes and overall have either no or a positive effect on the national economy. Foreign nationals are also filling critical skills gaps in South Africa's economy, and education and health care system.
With contemporary South African discourses on foreign migrants so dominated by prejudice and misinformation, and with a history so utterly pervaded by inequality, racism and segregation, there are probably many causes of anti-foreign sentiment. As many researchers have pointed out, it is likely that much of South Africa's xenophobia is rooted in the legacies of apartheid's policies of separating ethnic groups socially and economically, as well as the country's relative global isolation until 1994.
"The apartheid state actively constructed the rest of the world as different and threatening."
The apartheid state actively constructed the rest of the world as different and threatening to South Africa and its social order. The African continent in particular – where most of today's migrants to South Africa originate – was portrayed as an anarchic, backward and destructive force in need of constant monitoring. Some researchers have thus argued that South African xenophobia would better be termed "Afrophobia". Nevertheless, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Chinese migrants are also subject to hostility.
Furthermore, the spatial practices of apartheid policies enforced the idea that the rights of groups were associated with a certain territory only, with strict controls and limitations placed on movement between these territories. This legacy is clearly linked to contemporary hostilities towards those "invading" from beyond South Africa's borders under conditions of widespread unemployment and poverty.
Other scholars suggest that excluding foreigners serves a symbolic role in the process of nation-building and state-making in the country. It renders foreigners either political scapegoats for the lack of socio-economic progress, or a common enemy needed to unite an otherwise extremely diverse and fragmented citizenry
In the aftermath of 2008, a popular explanation among researchers, journalists and government officials was that violence arises when people's general xenophobic anxieties about space and jobs reach a critical threshold. Commentators less familiar with the statistics on migration into the country also blamed it on the "overwhelming" numbers of immigrants, and on the inability of the South African government to control the country's borders.
It seems common sense that poverty and socio-economic marginalization combined with an influx of outsiders would provide fertile breeding grounds for inter-group violence. However, this doesn't explain two surprising facts: first, xenophobic violence in South Africa only occurs in some of the country's impoverished areas but not in others. Second, it is not the poorest of the poor communities that seem to be the most prone to violent attacks on foreigners.
"The level of negative stereotypes, the number of migrants in the area, and the degree of socio-economic deprivation are all relatively poor predictors of the likelihood of xenophobic violence."
Recent research reveals interesting insights. It shows that the level of negative stereotypes, the proportion of migrants in the area, and the degree of socio-economic deprivation are all relatively poor predictors of the likelihood of xenophobic violence. Instead xenophobic violence often erupts in places where state authority is particularly limited and a variety of informal and often illegitimate actors compete for leadership. In these struggles for leadership, local actors often promote prejudice between different groups, sow suspicion or mobilise residents against foreigners to secure their own power base. However, triggers vary significantly from place to place, and there are considerable knowledge gaps regarding contexts and causes.
Stereotypes of migration as a threat not only dominate public opinion but also the views of government officials and policy makers in South Africa. South Africa's immigration and asylum policy is becoming more and more restrictive and the country is already undermining many of its very own constitutional and international commitments.
"The country's immigration and asylum policy reinforces xenophobia."
The most recent 2011 amendments to the Immigration Act are, according to the Department of Home Affairs (DHA), intended to stop organised crime, trafficking and corruption, thus creating the impression that immigration is the source of these societal plagues. The department also presented the amendment in such a way as to raise the idea that a tighter grip on immigration was a prerequisite for more successful employment creation for South Africans. This clearly reinforces the conception of migration as a threat to South African prosperity and security – a position that is not only lacking any empirical evidence but that may also further exacerbate anti-immigrant sentiment across the country. In line with its anti-immigration stance, South Africa has also consistently stalled the development of a regional policy framework for the free movement of people, an initiative of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to promote regional stability and economic growth.
Immigration and asylum policy and official discourses on migration not only reinforce xenophobia, but the government has also shown little political will to address anti-foreign sentiment and violence. Government officials, including former president Thabo Mbeki, tend to deny the extent of xenophobia in the country. They often argue that violence against foreigners is just part of the overall crime rate so staggeringly high in the country. Governmental xenophobia task teams exist overwhelmingly on an ad-hoc basis or on paper only, and interdepartmental coordination and cooperation with civil society and research organisations is lacking. The government does not consider xenophobia a threat to South Africa's development and social stability.
"The government sees the presence of migrants themselves – rather than the xenophobic sentiment towards them – as a threat to social cohesion."
The recently reinvigorated debate on nation-building and social cohesion in South Africa has focussed on race and related economic inequalities alone. It neglects any other pertinent fault lines within the county's domestic population groups as well as between locals and foreigners. If anything, the South African government sees the presence of migrants themselves – rather than the xenophobic sentiment and violence towards them – as a threat to social cohesion.
The effects of xenophobia towards foreign and domestic "others" extend far beyond the victimised individuals and groups. Intolerance and exclusion create a permanently volatile climate of mistrust and risk in the country, impacting negatively on social and economic cooperation amongst the country's diverse inhabitants. It also weakens the power and legitimacy of the South African state: every time vigilante mobs attack, expel or threaten those they feel do not belong to an area, the state essentially surrenders its authority, sovereignty and the rule of law in townships across the country.
"Intolerance and exclusion create a volatile climate of mistrust and risk in the country."
Dispelling myths about immigration is certainly an important element in reducing xenophobia. Unfounded stereotypes about migrants as threats need to be aggressively challenged with empirical information about the economic and social benefits that well-managed migration can bring to the country.
However, while changing attitudes is important, South Africa primarily and most immediately needs decisive, threefold action from its government in close partnership with civil society. The first step would be a thoroughly reformed immigration policy that moves away from the current securitisation approach and instead harnesses migration fully for the development of South Africa and its neighbours. Secondly, political leaders need to genuinely commit to proactively work to reduce xenophobia and promote the inclusion of foreign nationals as integral and legitimate members of South African society. Finally, there is an urgent need for effective conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms at the local level.
Without these steps, many more South African and foreign "outsiders" will lose their lives, and the persistent climate of exclusion, mutual mistrust and violent conflict will continue to hamper the development of a country with otherwise tremendous strength and potential.