The xenophobic attacks on African migrants cast a shadow on the World Economic Forum in Africa held in Cape Town and an angry backlash from South Africa’s northern neighbours. It may have received world-wide attention, but it is not a new phenomenon in South Africa. Figures from Xenowatch indicate that the attacks on foreigners in early September is far less than the figures of 2008. As one of the Nigerians who fled back to Lagos pointed out; it is everywhere. As people flee economic woes, famines or droughts they find themselves more and more in countries that are increasingly becoming hostile to foreigners. It has fuelled the election of Donald Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK. The New York Times tells the story of the Nigerians who arrive back in their home country with virtually no possessions or plans. It makes us feel ashamed and although South Africa’s Minister for International Relations Minister has called for Africa to better manage migration; there are no easy solutions. As political analyst Melanie Verwoerd has pointed out; this is likely not to be the last chapter in South African xenophobia. With rising temperatures there could be “an increase in refugees and migrants especially in places like South Africa, which would increase xenophobic sentiments. – Linda van Tilburg
By Thulasizwe Sithole
The backlash against the xenophobic attacks prompted Nigeria to fly 300 families back to Lagos where they arrived with “nothing but their children and their suitcases.” They fled back to their own country with very little left and say that the hatred for foreigners in South Africa had driven them back to Nigeria. Many believed that if they did not leave, they would have died.
African have long seen South Africa as a land of opportunity and have immigrated to the country at the southern tip of Africa hoping for a better future where they could raise their families. But this dream had turned into a nightmare for many. The foreigners are greeted with hostility in South Africa and blamed for the country’s economic woes and that they are stealing the jobs and housing of locals. Nigerians have been singled out as “drug dealers and thieves.”
This long-seated hatred ignited earlier this month when groups started looting and burning down shops owned by foreigners. At least 12 people were killed and it “prompted a diplomatic rift between South African and Nigeria, threatening relations between the continent’s largest economies.” President Cyril Ramaphosa’s effort to appease Nigeria and to apologise for the attacks, he promised action on prosecuting those guilty of violence, did not prevent Nigeria from starting a process of airlifting its citizens out of South Africa. The first flight carried 200 people with another arriving in the middle of last week, carrying another 314 people.
One of the Nigerians who was targeted, Socarvin Onuoha told the New York Times that he had left his cellphone store, car and a furnished house behind and fled back to Nigeria. He was waiting with his teenage children, who both have South African accents on a bench in the Lagos Airport with only R50 in his pocket. Onuoha said he did not know where they were going to sleep that night.
The New York Times also told the story of Patience Nduku who has four children ranging from 6 to 14 who told the Times how she moved to South Africa in 2007 where she started a restaurant. Business however suffered when the attacks began. She saw the attacks as “jealousies that had festered in South Africa for years.” Others described South Africa as a “destiny killer” that had destroyed their futures.
Immigrants from Nigeria that has an under- and unemployment problem of 40% and citizens of Zimbabwe and Somalia see South Africa as a destination for jobs and schools. But the Times said they have encountered anti-immigration sentiment that “has become common.” They found a South Africa still struggling with the legacies of apartheid and colonialism and “it has its own economic problems.”
Critics of the South African Government have laid the blame for the attacks on African migrants on politicians who are using foreigners as a scapegoat for the country’s problems. The attacks on foreigners have resulted in 60 people dying in 2008 with thousands of people displaced and it flared up again in 2015 when 7 people were killed by gangs looking for foreigners to attacks. In the latest spate. the xenophobic attacks led to the burning of cars with spear, baton and axe-carrying gangs targeting African migrants. South Africa’s defence minister however said that ten of the people killed in the latest attacks were South African citizens, only two were foreigners.
The Nigerians who were flown back to Lagos were receiving government assistance such as SIM cards for their phones and they were offered medical assistance. But most did not have any plans for the future. Mariam Bisiriyu talked angrily about the fact that some Africans were killing other Africans… “our brothers.” Banke Falye a hospital administrator related how she was in South African to get a Masters degree but taxi drivers kept on accusing her of dealing in drugs. Pelumi Odeh pointed out that it was not only South Africans that disliked foreigners. “It’s happening in America”, he said.