SA government’s handling of xenophobia : inhumane and immoral

Xenophobia is ongoing in South Africa. Xenowatch,  a tool monitoring xenophobic discrimination across South Africa, developed by the African Centre for Migration & Society at Wits found that from 2008 to 2021 there were 394 deaths and 944 incidents related to xenophobic violence.  The violence is often triggered by talk of a shrinking economy and rising unemployment. What exacerbates the situation is the lack of response and denialism from the government on issues associated with these challenges. In the article below, Sindile Vabaza examines how the South African government would rather scapegoat a vulnerable group than take accountability for their disastrous policies and mismanagement of the economy, as well as brazen corruption, which he deems immoral and inhumane. – Asime Nyide

An inhumane and immoral government

By Sindile Vabaza*

On 18 May 2008, a mob intent on chasing immigrants out of the Ramaphosa informal settlement on the East Rand caught two men carrying blankets and clothing with them. One of the men, 35-year-old Mozambican national Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, was wrapped in his own blankets by the mob, beaten and stabbed and then set alight. Despite the photographs of his gruesome murder being broadcast all over the world, none of the mob was arrested.

This was despite journalists from the Sunday Times locating eyewitnesses who could point to the main suspects in the crime, even as the police tardily and half-heartedly pursued the case and eventually closed it on October 27th 2010 with a single sheet of paper from detective Sipho Ndybane summarising the case as follows: “Suspects still unknown and no witnesses”. 

The gruesome murder of Mr Nhamuave and 61 other people in just over two weeks speaks to the various animating forces which spark xenophobic violence in South Africa, in particular public officials and politicians who routinely blame immigrants for a range of social and economic problems in South Africa.

The termination of the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit (ZEP) is yet another iteration of this continual scapegoating by public officials and politicians which will affect about 178,000 Zimbabweans who have lived and worked in South Africa for over a decade. Helen Suzman Foundation director Nicole Fritz has noted:

“The minister [Aaron Motsoaledi] has vaguely gestured to unemployment and crime at different points as some sort of justification. But there is no data to support such reasons and in their legal papers the department appears wisely to have abandoned such explanation”.

In fact, the minister’s vague notions of crime and unemployment not only have no supporting data, but they are patently false, as noted in a study by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) titled Scapegoating in South Africa: Busting the myths about immigrants. In the study the authors note that criminal justice data shows that immigrants are less likely to commit crime than South Africans, especially serious crimes such as rape and murder, even as they are disproportionately targeted in police operations.

The study also noted that immigrants contribute positively to the country. They contribute about 9% of GDP and actually boost employment because every working immigrant creates two local jobs. The findings of this study were echoed by Efficient Group Chief Economist Dawie Roodt in a telephonic interview.

In the interview Mr Roodt talked about how South African politicians foolishly treat the economy as a zero-sum game, when in fact the economy is a living organism where every immigrant in the country who works is not just a producer but also a consumer. Mr Roodt’s assertions are backed up by both sound economic theory and the facts of the ISS study. 

In choosing to target a vulnerable group of people and scapegoating them for their governance failures the South African government is not only exhibiting a profound ignorance of sound economics and public policy, but is acting in an inhumane and immoral way.

It cannot go unsaid that part of the reason so many Zimbabweans cross the border into South Africa, sometimes crossing crocodile infested rivers to do so, is because the South African government failed to act against Robert Mugabe’s political violence in the lead up to and during the 2008 general elections in which the late MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai had outpolled Robert Mugabe. Tsvangirai looked set to win a runoff before an explosion of violence was unleashed by war veterans, Zanu-PF militia, and security force members. 

Buoyed by the army’s support, senior Zanu-PF officials declared that the party would not accept defeat in an election because Zimbabwe had been liberated through war, not the ballot box. Then president Thabo Mbeki’s immoral and cowardly ‘quiet diplomacy’ remains a festering boil on his legacy, as Zimbabwe continued on a downward spiral of political violence, economic failure and human misery despite his insistence that his policy was working.

In light of the South African governments’ failures during the 2008 Zimbabwean elections, and the plain facts that contradict much of the anti-immigrant sentiment which is increasingly becoming more cantankerous through movements like Operation Dudula, it would be a stain on this country if the termination of the ZEP is upheld by the Pretoria High Court.

It will simply be a harbinger for worse to come as the politicians will have successfully directed citizens’ anger towards vulnerable immigrants and away from state failure relating to poor governance, corruption and non-responsiveness to community needs.

According to the ISS study, United Nations experts tracking the growing xenophobia in South Africa issued the following public statement in 2022: 

“Anti-migrant discourse from senior government officials has fanned the flames of violence, and government actors have failed to prevent further violence or hold perpetrators accountable. Without urgent action from the government to curb the scapegoating of migrants and refugees, and the widespread violence and intimidation against these groups, we are deeply concerned that the country is on the precipice of explosive violence.”

If Minister Motsoaledi’s vague notions are anything to go by it seems the South African government would rather scapegoat a vulnerable group rather than take accountability for their disastrous policies and mismanagement of the economy, as well as brazen corruption. The government would rather stoke the fires of xenophobic hatred than create a conducive regulatory environment for businesses to thrive and jobs to be created. 

  • Sindile Vabaza, an aspiring economist and an avid writer, is a contributing author for the Free Market Foundation. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

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