Greetings from the desk of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.
Over the past several weeks, groups of angry people in some of South Africa’s poorest areas have been attacking the small spaza, or convenience stores, in their own neighbourhoods. The mood of the attacks has been utterly xenophobic, since the owners or workers at these spaza stores are mainly seen as foreigners. The workers and owners come from as far off as Bangladesh and as close by as Zimbabwe. It took South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa weeks to respond to the violence. ‘There can be no excuse for the attacks on the homes and businesses of foreign nationals, just as there can be no excuse for xenophobia or any other form of intolerance’, he said on 5 September.
Such xenophobic attacks are not new. There is a living memory that traces them back to 1994. But this current cycle began in 2008 when the shock waves of the global credit crisis hit the end of the African continent with significant force. A million jobs were lost, and the unemployment rate went above 25% (it is now at 29%). There has been no recovery since that time, with these xenophobic attacks emerging every once in a while, such as last year, as an indicator of the economic and social malaise. To get the full context for this violence, please read Sisonke Msimang’s ‘Belonging’ from 2014.
Bhayiza Miya of the Thembelihle Crisis Committee told Jan Bornman of New Frame that the key factors at play are unemployment, poverty, and political toxicity. ‘Our brothers and sisters from other countries aren’t responsible for that’, he said of these three factors. ‘They are living with us in our community’. Bhayiza explained that it is not migrants who have been elected to exercise power over the communities; rather, the fault lies with those who ‘[w]e have voted people into power, those who are stealing from us today. So whatever frustration or whatever anger we want to vent, we vent it to them because they are the ones holding whatever we want’. Bhayiza’s comments go against the tidal wave of racism, a replication of older racism – as the University of Cape Town student Ivan Katsere writes – ‘which has been made possible by the inability to dismantle the structure that was created during apartheid’.
The xenophobic violence is not authored by other poor people alone, but also by the police. Harsh police raids in early August against traders in counterfeit goods – many of them vulnerable migrants – sets the tone for the xenophobic attacks. The murder of a taxi driver in South Africa’s capital Pretoria led to accusations against drug dealers, who were once more characterised as foreign nationals.