Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari declared during his recent visit to SA that “xenophobic” attacks in the country are a shame on Africa. Similarly, other African leaders have been critical of the SA government’s inability to prevent attacks on immigrants and refugees.

The recent outbreaks of violence were the latest instalment in criminality that date back to the very beginning of the country’s independence in 1994.

While no-one can dispute the tragedy such violence has visited on immigrants and refugees, African observers — particularly political leaders — fail to understand three facts that define the problem: nearly all such violence occurs in the predominantly black townships and informal settlements; the targets of such violence are not only African immigrants; and foreigners in most parts of the country are not subject to such targeted violence.

Immigrants and refugees are not the only victims of such violence and those who legitimately condemn these acts rarely think about the lives of the majority of blacks citizens of the country. Black and poor SA communities have been terrorised by criminal gangs, often by the same gangs that loot and maim immigrants. Statistics SA shows that 57 people are killed in SA on average every day and that the vast majority of these victims are citizens.

For every immigrant (African or otherwise) murdered, many citizens face that fate in the same areas. Unfortunately, Africans outside the country rarely take note of this tragic carnage and appear to value the lives of refugees and immigrants more than black SA victims.

The violence arises because of the desperate struggles over livelihoods among the indigent. What is not astonishing is that immigrants fleeing the violence find refuge within the larger black community

It is vital for all those who care about African lives to understand the complexity of the calamity to contribute to a comprehensive solution. Criminality is widespread in parts of SA and so the best way to define this problem is not by creating sensationalist labels, such as xenophobia, but to critically assess the genesis, nature, and scope of the problem.

There is no dispute that the context that underpins this criminality is the enduring legacy of apartheid injustice and the hopelessness that prevails in significant areas of the country.

Poverty and high unemployment is endemic in these areas, despite the huge effort the government made since 1994 to ameliorate these conditions. Thus, examining the geography and political economy of violence unambiguously demonstrates that it is the poor, South Africans and immigrants, in townships and informal settlements who are preyed upon by criminals.

What is astonishing is why Africans leaders, NGOs, and the media raise their heckles only when immigrants and refugees are victimised.

A thoughtful person might ask why do some immigrants and refugees settle in those “forbidden” areas. Before responding to this question we need to state that SA under white minority rule did not accept African immigrants and refugees before 1994. It is only since liberation that large numbers of Africans and others moved to SA. Since a proportion of the Africans who voyaged to SA were poor they settled in the “black” townships and sought their livelihoods there.

Some poor immigrants and refugees who settled in those areas engage in business and thus compete with their SA counterparts. A small group of these newcomers have an advantage over the local retailers since they are part of a larger network of people located in cities and towns. Such links allow them to have access to wholesale prices that are not available to local black citizens.

Consequently, some the immigrant businesses in some of the townships and informal settlements out-compete their local neighbours by offering customers cheaper prices. Such competition generates resentment that sometimes turns violent — but it is mostly local criminals who see an opportunity in these circumstances. Sensing the social isolation of immigrant traders, local criminals target them at the slightest pretext to loot. Once the criminals attack, some of the poor and unemployed join in the mayhem.

In a nut shell, the violence arises because of the desperate struggles over livelihoods among the indigent. What is not astonishing is that immigrants fleeing the violence find refuge within the larger black community.  

Whose shame?

Finally, there are two major actors who have been derelict in their duties and that are responsible for the crisis.

First, the government has made huge investments in housing, education, social grants, and medical care to dent the deep humanitarian deficits of apartheid. But it could have accomplished more if it was not for the lost decade of jacob Zuma’s corrupt presidency and the government’s misguided, neo-liberal economic strategy.

Despite these domestic problems, the government welcomed millions of Africans who fled their own countries as a nod to the continent’s support for liberation.

Second, the political elite in much of Africa (such as Nigeria), mismanaged their economies and terrorised their people. Such political economic conditions forced many Africans to seek sanctuary in SA. Had these elites productively used their resources, developed their population’s talents, and treated their people humanely, they would not have sought asylum in SA.

Such leaders lack the moral authority to castigate SA. The shame is theirs for failing to translate the struggles for independence into dignified livelihood realities.   

• Samatar is professor of geography at the University of Minnesota and research fellow at the University of Pretoria.