Picture: Thulani Mbele
Picture: Thulani Mbele

Twelve people dead and 639 arrested — that was the tally on Monday night following more than a week of xenophobic violence in SA.

Parts of Gauteng were brought to a standstill as angry mobs looted shops and torched cars and buildings. This was despite appeals for calm by former IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi — he was shrugged off by hostel dwellers, who sang songs calling for foreigners to go back where they came from.

More deaths and arrests are likely because the government has been unable to quell the anger and blatant criminality, despite the potential fallout for SA itself and for its relations with the rest of the continent.

Organised business last week warned of a potentially "devastating" effect on an already limping economy.

On the diplomatic front, Zambia last week called off a friendly match against Bafana Bafana, while Nigeria has made arrangements for the repatriation of any of its citizens who want to leave.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari even issued a warning on Twitter: "The recurring issue of xenophobia and attacks on African nationals remains very worrying. If nothing is done to stop it, it could negatively affect the image and standing of SA as one of the leading countries in Africa. It has to be stopped."

Speaking to the media on Monday — in the wake of two more deaths on Sunday — President Cyril Ramaphosa said: "Lawlessness is a crime against our prosperity and stability as a nation, and those who want to upset our public order must expect to face the gravest impact of the law."

But xenophobia in SA is nothing new. Violent anti-immigrant attacks took place in 2008, when they were most severe, and again in 2015.

Lizette Lancaster, manager of the crime and justice information hub at the Institute for Security Studies, says the government’s response this time has been "marginally better", but law enforcement is still lacking and there appears to be no plan to address the outbreak of violence.

The government and the ANC steered clear of describing it as xenophobia until as late as this week, and for the most part simply called it "criminality". The DA also only started calling it what it is this week: xenophobia.

Prof Loren Landau, senior researcher at the African Centre for Migration & Society at Wits University, says while the outbreaks are undoubtedly criminal, criminality too has its motives. It may be rooted, for example, in economic hardship and opportunism. "But what we see now is a criminality that is rooted in politics," he says. "It is … a co-ordinated effort on behalf of local authorities to remove people that they dislike in their communities."

Lancaster believes reducing the violence to "criminality" alone disguises the fundamental issue.

"The main problem is that political leaders do not contradict the myths about foreigners and they often believe it themselves. We have to change the narrative and start relying on research instead of emotions," she says.

While more research is necessary, Lancaster says existing studies show that foreigners actually contribute positively to the economy.

"We have to start framing things in an evidence-based way and not just have a knee-jerk reaction."

Landau makes a similar point. "Anyone who looks at the statistics knows that the number of foreigners in the country is not enough to account for the extraordinary levels of unemployment and crime," he says.

"By making those issues immigration issues, we distract ourselves from the other real concerns the country faces."

Landau says that in 2018, with the May 2019 general election looming, the ANC seemed to consciously decide to talk about stronger border control and more restrictive access to the labour and work economies. The DA, especially Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba, took a similar line.

What it means

Politicians have stoked anti-foreigner sentiment they cannot now control

"The result is that, running up to the last couple of weeks, almost every politician … has been talking about the need to keep foreigners out of the country or at least out of the markets," he says.

The effect, he believes, is clear on many levels. First, people on the ground see it as a kind of open door to violence and further attacks. Second, it isolates the country from the rest of the continent, while also diminishing its moral authority and goodwill.

"But I think most fundamentally it’s a shift of political discourse to a politics of blame and fear over reason," he says.

Given that the rhetoric of politicians inflamed the situation, do they now have the political power to contain it?

Landau believes not. "They have awakened an anger and framed an issue to a point that SA sovereignty [and] the welfare of SA citizens — in people’s minds anyway — depend on clearing the country of foreigners. And at this point, when the government says it is unwilling to do [that], citizens feel they should do it themselves."