Last week, South Africa suffered several days of violent, xenophobic attacks against mostly foreign African migrants. Sunday’s demonstrations were the largest, with many attacks led by disgruntled citizens who resorted to violence, looting, damaging property of migrants, and ransacking migrant businesses. These attacks were neither random nor impulsive but are deeply rooted in the dark history of the nation and its legacy today.
In 1994, South Africa triumphed in its fight against apartheid, marking an end to institutionalized racism in the nation. While the development of democracy and increased political reform proved to be promising, a narrow version of Pan-Africanism slowly developed into the xenophobic sentiments and actions seen today. As Christian Science Monitor reports, a variety of factors have fed xenophobic tensions, including a widening wealth gap, government corruption, and political scapegoating. As a result, many South Africans blame migrants and foreign nationals for the deteriorating conditions in their country.
These issues have not been solved and they are being exacerbated by politicians and toxic societal norms. The New York Times noted that local municipalities, townships, and even neighborhoods are to blame for propagating South African nationalism in its worst form. Hatred towards foreign nationals has spawned several false stereotypes and characteristics. Many blame migrants for increased crime, stealing jobs, and often view them through a predatory lens. Aaron Motsoaledi, South Africa’s former health minister, blamed foreigners for overcrowded hospitals and the increased spread of disease, says The Economist.
Nigerian nationals were the people most affected by the recent attacks. While official reports indicate that no specific group was targeted in the attacks, The Washington Post claims that there are numerous reports of “widespread anti-Nigerian rhetoric.” The Nigerian government responded quickly, offering repatriation to those affected and those feeling unsafe in the country. Coordinated efforts were made to provide free flights back to Nigeria.
CNN reports that at least 640 Nigerian citizens are being repatriated. In direct response, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria announced that he would send a special investigative envoy to South Africa. As a result of the violence, the diplomatic strain between the two countries has grown tense. Nigeria has promised to boycott the World Economic Forum, which is to be hosted in Cape Town.
South Africa has garnered a great deal of attention and condemnation on the world stage as a result of the violence. The African Union responded by condemning the attacks in its “strongest terms.” The South African Bishops’ Conference put out a strong statement regarding the recent violence, with one Bishop even stating that the country’s xenophobic climate holds “no difference to the rising tide of hatred in Nazi Germany,” according to Catholic News Agency.
Internationally, non-government organizations have spread the news through social media, even adopting the hashtag #saynotoxenophobia to advocate for the affected groups. Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s president, also strongly condemned the attacks and ordered that the country’s diplomatic missions in Abuja and Lagos be temporarily closed.
In these difficult times, South Africans can remember the words of the late Nelson Mandela, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”