Back to the Future

African- on-African xenophobia

African- on-African xenophobia
  • PublishedMay 1, 2019

While African emigrants decry their treatment in Europe and elsewhere, the spate of African-on-African xenophobia raises ugly questions. What are the causes of this problem? By Onyekachi Wambu

The outbreaks of violence against African migrants continue to poison the South African brand. The positive narrative of truth, reconciliation and forgiveness, or the much-vaunted philosophy of Ubuntu, melts into insignificance in the face of Africans being ruthlessly hacked with machetes. This treatment of the other undermines complaints about the treatment of Africans in Europe and elsewhere. What is fuelling this?

Anyone visiting South Africa since independence has sensed the shift from the optimism and openness of the early years, when Mandela was celebrated and everything seemed possible, to the gloom of the present, where for many, hope has evaporated, and little change is expected in their lives.

For me, this shift has been reflected in the behaviour of my middle-class African friends. Post- 1994, as the society opened up, former white-only institutions looked around for these middle-class Africans as part of overdue diversity drives. The same institutions, looking to hedge an uncertain black future, also offered businesses opportunities, partnerships, and access to credit.

On the back of this an emerging African middle-class opened fast-growing businesses in sectors like fashion, retail, hotels. Confidence was such that every visit to South Africa ended with invitations from this middle class to relocate and participate in the opportunities.

The blandishments were easily declined. Instead one tried, unsuccessfully, to engage this over-confident group in discussions about the fundamentals of the economy, set against the deal that produced the miracle of the ‘rainbow nation’.

Under the deal there was to be no redistribution – land and the existing economy would be left in white hands. Future African empowerment would happen only through an expansion of the economy.

But just to absorb the historically unemployed and provide jobs for those coming onto the job market, the economy needed to grow annually by 5%. Since 1994, however, the economy has averaged just 2.7% growth, which is not enough to absorb the long-term unemployed and those coming onto the market, let alone the large numbers of new migrants, dazzled by the prospects of the ‘rainbow nation’.

Soured dreams

The gap between what was needed and the reality is what is producing the soured dreams witnessed on recent trips to South Africa, and the kind of poisoned behaviour we witness towards other Africans.

On a personal level, seeing the crushing of the dreams of friends over the last 15 years has been sobering. Having got the measure of the African opposition, the whites who control the economy have defaulted to their old complacency, closing up the partnerships and access to finance they had previously offered, when they once feared radical retribution.

Africans, although representing the majority of the consumer market, remain just consumers. They or their political leadership, have not been able to develop businesses to service their needs and employ themselves in sufficient numbers.

Afraid to take on the unfinished business with white capital (or even colluding with it); reluctant to admit to a bad independence deal (which has been institutionalised and celebrated) or their subsequent political failure in growing the economy, has finally left – as the default position – the scapegoating of foreigners for all the country’s shortcomings.

What is occurring here is not unusual. All countries have a degree of xenophobia, and when exacerbated by economic setbacks, this leads to tensions and even expulsions, as when the Nigerian and Ghanaian governments expelled each other’s citizens. Communal violence is also widespread within countries where different ethnic or religious groups have been targeted.

However, despite the individual tragedies and disappointment in South Africa, we need to be careful not to overestimate the problems associated with this kind of xenophobia.

According to UNCTAD, in 2017, there were about 41m international migrants from, to, or within Africa. Of these, 19m resided in Africa, 17m were outside of the continent, and 5.5m were immigrants from the rest of the world to Africa. Of the 19m moving within Africa, most have been made welcome. Problems only arise where they get caught up, as in Côte d’Ivoire, with countries where migrants  and migration have become politicised. NA                                

Written By
Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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