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Xenophobia in South Africa

By Andrew M. Mwenda

How the flaws in the post-apartheid political settlement have shaped the current anti-immigrant sentiments

Last week, “popular” anger in South Africa exploded into a new wave of violence. Youths wielding machetes and looking like Rwanda’s interahamwe in 1994 roamed the streets burning and/or slashing their victims without pity. The violence was both saddening and illuminating. It was saddening because it reinforced the stereotypes about Africans as being of barbaric disposition. It was illuminating because it demonstrated the fundamental flaw in the political settlement in post-apartheid South Africa.

A lot has been written about how Nelson Mandela crafted South Africa into a democratic society whose cornerstone was respect for diversity – hence the term “rainbow nation”. And there is a lot of truth in this narrative. For example tensions between whites and blacks have been held at bay in spite of high levels of inequality. However, the drive to elevate Mandela to super human, almost godly, status tended to over-simplify South Africa’s reality, exaggerate the results of his work, and push under the carpet glaring pitfalls in the political system that replaced apartheid.

Mandela is rightly credited for helping craft a democratic constitution for South Africa. But the discourse that has been sung loudly by Western leaders, mass media, scholarship, and regurgitated by many African elites has always focused on the rituals of democracy even when these did not serve any democratic function. For example, in negotiating the end of apartheid, Mandela allowed white South Africa to retain (almost intact) the economic structure of apartheid.

Apartheid was essentially an economic system. Its aim was to keep the “native” Africans poor so that they can provide cheap labour to the white industrial aristocracy that owned the commanding heights of the economy – finance, mines, manufacturing, etc. The “democratic” constitution of South Africa entrenched a regime of “rights” to protect privileges that were accumulated through racial oppression. It paid only lip service to the demands for social justice and equity that had animated the struggle for independence.


The challenge facing post-apartheid South Africa whether the country could retain an economic system that reinforces white privilege but sustain a system that gives political power to the black majority? The answer seemed yes. South Africa’s whites have a hostage in form of its private economy. If the black majority attempted to use its political power to economically dispossess the white minority, whites could retaliate using the international system and their economic power. By sending their capital abroad, whites can precipitate an economic crisis. Economic crises can precipitate political collapse, something that would undermine the ability of the ANC to sustain the welfare handouts to its black voters. (By 2010 the number of people, largely black, who depended on state welfare grants for daily survival, was 13 million with the possibility of an additional 7 million).

Hence the ANC has been careful not to attempt anything revolutionary. This is perhaps because they appreciate the ability of the economically wealthy to punish the politically powerful. In neighbouring Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe sought to alter this equilibrium. He has used political power to dispossess the economically powerful. Using their economic power at home and their cultural and business ties with the West, they were able to retaliate with economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, precipitating economic collapse in Zimbabwe. However, this failed to bring about regime collapse. It is possible that the West punished Mugabe harshly in order to send a clear message to South Africa about the evil that would be visited on its economy and on ANC leaders if they attempted any radical reordering of property rights.

Without ability to reform the structures of the economy in a radical fashion to serve their large black constituency, the ANC retreated to piecemeal policies like the black empowerment program. However, these programs turned into a treasure trove for ANC big wigs. The top leadership of the ANC became super-millionaires by using their political connections to get lucrative government contracts. These joined the white business class, thus creating a common class interest. It is also true that a sizeable black middleclass made up of professionals and small to medium size enterprise owners has consolidated. However, these constitute about 18% of the black population. The real challenge for South Africa is the fate of 33 million poor blacks.

For lack of 2011-15 figures, let me use statistics of 2010 in South Africa. With a population of about 50 million people, blacks constituted 80 percent i.e. 40 million. By then 48% of blacks were unemployed; 33 million lived in poverty of whom 15 million were “very poor” (and earning just 7% of national income) and 18 million were chronically poor” (living off only 5% of national income). Average life expectancy at birth for blacks had fallen from 62 years in 1990 to 49 years in 2007. (Compare this with poor Rwanda whose average life expectancy has increased from 25 years in 2000 to 63 years in 2013). And 60% of blacks in South Africa were worse off than they were under apartheid while 24% of adults were illiterate. South Africa has overtaken Brazil as the most unequal society in the world. The income gap between whites and blacks is now worse than under apartheid.

With such a record, how would the ANC and other black leaders in South Africa retain their legitimacy? It was inevitable that xenophobia would be the answer. The ruling elite need to divert the attention of the impoverished black voters from the corruption and incompetence of the system – by inventing an external enemy, the immigrant from other African countries. It is a smart albeit callous way of dealing with the explosive situation. Of course the rich black South African elite are not united in this cause.

Thus, as the ANC fails to make a fundamental change in the economic situation of the black majority, its leaders will directly or indirectly resort to xenophobia. But xenophobia will not solve the failures inherent in the way the ANC is mismanaging South Africa. It will only postpone them. Once immigrants are gone, a new enemy will be invented and I suspect it will be the rich white man. Then South Africa will embark on the road to Zimbabwe with its tragic consequences. But this will be a short term fix that will not resolve the underlying problem: how do you organise the economy to serve the interests of all citizens? When these imaginary enemies are done with, the ANC will have no excuses but to address this fundamental question.

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