Migration between states of southern Africa has a long history, crucial to the development of mining in South Africa and the sheltering of freedom fighters who launched attacks on the apartheid regime from neighbouring states. Times are now hard for all these states, including South Africa and many cross the border simply to survive. This sparks xenophobic attacks that need to be halted, writes Raymond Suttner.

South Africa reeks with hatred as a range of categories of human beings and organisations are engaged in xenophobic attacks on the most vulnerable sections of our society. 

These include:

Organisations like Operation Dudula, that drives people out of their homes illegally, unsurping the power of the state to make some people homeless and fear for their lives.

Limpopo Health MEC Phophi Ramathuba, who upbraids patients in a hospital in her province for ‘using up’ the budget and crowding out the hospitals with migrants from Zimbabwe. The evidence points to other reasons—relating to governance—as to why the budget is a problem in Limpopo. But those who incite or practise xenophobia are generally indifferent to the facts.

Random harassment of Zimbabweans, including by traffic officials (reported to me).

It is well known that the Zimbabwean exemption permit (ZEP) is due to be revoked at the end of the year, unless the court case to be heard in October by a full bench of the Gauteng high court throws the proclamation out or refers it back to the department to consult more widely or conduct other processes before the ZEP is put into effect. Such an interim result may be likely if the case succeeds.

In the meantime, many bearers of the ZEP are panicking because they are in most cases without any chance of qualifying for other residence permits, requiring specialised skills that are in short supply in South Africa. However, an atmosphere of hatred towards Zimbabweans appears to have gathered impetus through wide sections of the population with it being common to hear anti-Zimbabwean comments from people to the effect that they should “get out”.

What I would not have conceded some time ago now appears to be true, that the masses, i.e. ordinary working or unemployed people of South Africa from a range of sectors may now in significant numbers be part of those who believe in driving out foreign-born Africans, in this case, particularly Zimbabweans. This means that the anti-Zimbabwean message that was initiated from the top, from sections of the leadership, may have become a “common sense” position among the population as a whole, that “they must go”.

In the absence of leadership that offers a contrary position, that argues for a universal notion of freedom, for a humanistic notion of who is legitimately present within our borders in accordance with the declaration of the Constitution and the Freedom Charter that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”, xenophobia thrives.

In the absence of that commonality, that shared belief system and a leadership that is in fact complicit in or part of those who incite xenophobic actions, it is aiming to expel foreign-born Africans and other foreign-born people. They are driven out of streets, out of trading, out of townships, out of hospitals, out of other places where they can eke out a living or find shelter.

The continued surge of xenophobia is a particularly morbid symptom of the current crisis of democracy in South Africa. It is part of the decadence that comprises the erosion of the democratic hope many had in 1994.

For most people, it does not appear that there is a sense of common humanity and shared destiny anymore. One encounters or reads in the media people speaking of “our borders”, “we’re a sovereign state”, and “we must protect our borders”—or “no state allows anyone to come into its borders as they like” and a whole lot of other legal cliches that add nothing to any potential debate and understanding.

But the truth of the matter is that the xenophobic terrorisation against foreign-born Africans does not distinguish between documented and undocumented Africans.

Xenophobia, as with all forms of racism, distinguishes between rich and poor because the target is primarily the poorest of the poor, who are also black. It does not target those who are foreign-born but live in the leafy suburbs or patronise restaurants in the wealthier parts of Johannesburg. It targets the most vulnerable section of the population.

And that is part of the cowardice that accompanies xenophobia. Many who take part in these attacks are churchgoers or people who follow one or other religion. If one looks at the teachings of every religion in the world, one will see that “welcoming the stranger” is an integral part of their belief system, whether it is Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or virtually any other one, and African customary belief systems, of course, are suffused with notions of ubuntu, which are in themselves totally antagonistic to throwing strangers out into the cold. It is also central to the classical teachings of Marxism, long forgotten by the SACP, who show no solidarity with those under attack now.

It is alleged by the Home Affairs Department that conditions have improved in Zimbabwe sufficiently for people to safely return and with an economy that is repaired. It does not conform with reports that one has on an almost daily basis, on repression against anyone who opposes the Emmerson Mnangagwa-led Zanu-PF government in Zimbabwe.

It does not conform with reports of the socio-economic crisis of Zimbabwe. We have a socio-economic crisis here. But it is nothing compared to that in Zimbabwe. The claim that it’s safe for these people to go back to Zimbabwe is not scientifically based. It is a throwaway remark, which is just a fig leaf to cover the act of aggression against the most vulnerable among us, who are scapegoated for economic woes brought about to a large extent by the government.

It is also claimed that jobs in South Africa must be reserved for South Africans. Not only Home Affairs and the Labour and Employment departments, but also the EFF has taken it upon itself to examine the extent to which foreign-born people occupy positions in businesses at certain shopping centres. New legislation will narrow opportunities for those migrants who escape expulsion.

It is true that people from Zimbabwe are highly represented in some enterprises, like the restaurant trade. That is not a job that most South Africans want, because they prefer to be with their families at dinner time. It is for that reason that one will find that there are more Zimbabweans than South Africans working long hours in restaurants. Xenophobia relates to the notion of who can consider South Africa or any particular country to be their home. It defines those who are entitled to this, as people who are South African citizens, or those who for various reasons have become documented as legally entitled to be in the country.

It is true that certain rights are only accessible for citizens. But most of the rights in the Constitution are accessible to all who happen to be in South Africa at a particular moment. These include freedom from arbitrary arrest, the right to emergency health treatment, and a number of other rights in the Bill of Rights.

The notion of “home” being one restricted to claims by those who are South African citizens runs against well-established ethics that were essential to some of the great leaders of the liberation Struggle in South Africa and the ethos of the Struggle itself.

It is unimaginable to think that people like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Chief Albert Luthuli, Dr Yusuf Dadoo, and others would advocate or implement notions of xenophobia.

The other question that arises is that there is something essentially uncaring, sadistic, and callous in the way in which foreign migrants are treated, who are bundled out of the country wherever it’s possible.

Treating people in this dehumanised way is a replication of patterns of conduct that were rejected, being central to the repudiation of apartheid in the liberation Struggle. Xenophobic conduct is a species of racism, comprising a racist discourse and institutionalised racist practices.

The resort to legality is fake. When they say, “Zimbabweans out!” or “foreigners out!”, they do not ask them for documents. They just want them out. And most of the attacks on foreign migrants are not based on accurate information as to how many migrants there are and whether or not they are documented or undocumented.

These are simply targeting the most vulnerable sections of the population. That again, is a replication of the practices of apartheid. At an earlier time, the ANC-led liberation movement rose primarily in defence of the marginalised. This same liberation movement has now been transformed, we know, not only into an aggressive and violent state targeting the vulnerable. In the case of xenophobia, it is itself perpetrating elements of the racist and violent practices of apartheid for whose defeat so many people died. σ

Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa.

This article originally appeared on Creamer Media’s polity.org.za and is published with permission.

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