Anti-migrant violence is sign South Africa may soon implode
On Monday, the top floor of a building in central Johannesburg occupied mainly by Nigerian migrants caught fire.
It is not known whether the fire was started deliberately or not, but what a video clip that went viral shows is that as the occupants tried to escape by jumping to the ground, they were accosted by a howling mob.
This was just one of the more graphic representations of similar scenes that have engulfed South Africa’s commercial capital for the better part of this week.
The country is once again in the grip of an acute outbreak of xenophobia, but this time, the rest of the continent is taking notice and saying enough.
Xenophobic attacks have been occurring in South Africa intermittently since 1994, targeting fellow Africans who are only there because jobs are non-existent in their own countries.
But while some run legitimate businesses or eke out a living doing menial jobs, all are now being accused of turning to crime.
What is common about them all is that native South Africans do not want them there and once they go berserk, they do not demand papers or distinguish between criminals and genuine “economic refugees”.
So when they pour into the streets, every foreigner is fair game so long as he or she is a fellow African.
There have been no reports of whites or Asians being targeted although they too own shops and other businesses.
So what informs these anti-African rampages that have been claiming lives practically every year?
Many theories have been advanced to explain such curious selectivity. The rioters claim they want to get rid of the migrants, the kwere kweres, for taking their jobs.
They also accuse the migrants of selling drugs and counterfeits, running prostitution rings, killing innocent South Africans and generally making their cities uninhabitable. [This reminds one of the anti-migrant rhetoric that has become popular in parts of the world where racial bigotry is an important ingredient in the mix, notably in Donald Trump’s America].
But here we are talking about Africans who have suffered these prejudices for centuries turning against fellow Africans from other lands.
As a young boy, still in early primary school, I hated a man known as Hendrick Verwoerd.
Everyone was speaking ill of the man because he kept jailing Africans without justification, and wished him dead.
Years later, I was to learn that the evils of apartheid had died, but the system was very much alive.
It was not until 25 years ago that the yoke around the necks of black Africans was to be lifted, when the great Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress gained power.
As matters stand, the ANC and other political formations that had struggled for liberation did not do it alone; they did it with a little help from their friends in Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania and Angola.
So why would the South African hordes turn against their benefactors? That is the question many in the continent are asking, wondering just how ungrateful folks can be.
After all, as the brilliant South African comedian Trevor Noah argues in a well-circulated blog post, there are only 1.6 million African migrants who can only lay claim to 0.00001 per cent of wealth in South Africa, while whites make up 8.7 per cent of the population but control over 85 per cent of the wealth.
He concludes that the series of outrages is “completely misplaced anger, prejudice and xenophobia built up out of an inferiority complex created by decades of apartheid and oppression”.
While it may not be easy to authenticate Noah’s statistics, his argument does sound plausible.
Another argument is even more convincing: during the long liberation struggle, the ANC promised good things to all people, but it has been unable to deliver much.
Not only did the white folk hold onto their vast agricultural lands, they still dominate all the other factors of production and the gap between the very wealthy and very poor has never been wider.
The only difference now is that in between is a class of black bourgeois compradors who wield political power and are understandably reluctant to change the status quo.
To cover up their ineptitude and lack of political will, the ruling class could be responsible for periodically inciting this agitation to convince South Africans that their poverty is caused by equally poor migrants who drive trucks, retail consumer goods and take up menial jobs that they themselves are reluctant to do because they had been promised greater things.
Should that be the case, then there is no likelihood of any reduction in the frequency of xenophobic attacks.
There can only be two options then: either the migrants return home voluntarily, which is highly improbable considering the anaemic nature of most African economies, or the South African government takes sterner measures to curb the kind of lawlessness that may one day result in genocide against hapless migrants.
Certainly, the kind of tepid response proffered by President Cyril Ramaphosa this week will never do the trick.