Thabang Motsohi
Thabang Motsohi

Xenophobic violence has underlying causes that were ignored

The unfortunate cycle of wanton violence meted against migrants in Tshwane and other parts of Gauteng is indeed petrifying and dangerous. It is our responsibility to arrest its cyclical nature and rededicate our efforts to honestly confront the underlying issues and resolve them permanently. Anecdotal evidence points to a massive level of frustration that has been building up exponentially over a long period and has now reached a tipping point within the black township communities.

Sustainable solutions will only be possible if we honestly try to comprehend the context that has generated this kind of behaviour.

The black townships were essentially conceived as sources of cheap labour that were located far enough to not dilute the white social fabric and close enough to serve the purpose for which they were created. Life in these communities was heavily regulated including where one would be permitted to trade and what kind of trade to engage in. In these circumstances it is not surprising that entrepreneurship of all forms was not given a chance to thrive and grow. These restrictions perpetuated the intergenerational wealth inequality and poverty that continues to define South Africa today. Those that were able to establish businesses under those circumstances and thrive are indeed heroes.

Communities in those areas are diverse in terms of cultural and linguistic lines. However there is, in almost all of them, a very high degree of cultural harmony and social stability. Social institutions like schools, churches and political associations have also played a crucial role in maintaining a sense of common destiny and stability in these communities.

The level of poverty in the black communities is harrowing. Poverty and unemployment have generated a real sense of hopelessness and anger in these communities. This anger is more visible in the youth who constitute the majority of the unemployed. In a situation where there was inclusive economic growth, I believe the scenario would be different. Now, bring into the mix the foreign traders who dominate the micro retail sector, rather than the productive sector where they should be, in those communities and you have a wonderful cocktail for a potential flair-up at any moment. All it needs is a spark.

There are currently about 278 municipalities and in almost all the black townships in these municipalities have a business run by a foreign trader at almost every ward. Their unstated set-up strategy was to establish at least two businesses in close proximity to the existing business of a local entrepreneur and choke it out of existence and then dominate the area.  This strategy has been replicated throughout all the black communities. Assuming that the average size of a township community will have a minimum of 15 foreign traders, the numbers and implications are frightening.

Most of these businesses are owned by migrants mainly from Somalia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Ethiopia and they have been very successful. It is alleged that a very large number of them are undocumented and trading illegally. Such an efficient scale of invasion and domination of indigenous trading spaces is unprecedented globally.

Entrepreneurial opportunities for the locals at the basic level were thus frustrated. Almost all those whose businesses collapsed under this onslaught resorted to leasing their trading places to the very invaders who forced them out of business. Thus the cycle of intergenerational wealth inequality and poverty was again perpetuated. And the levels of anger and resentment were also deepened. Given the legacy of exclusion in the apartheid era and confronted with another wave of domination and exclusion in the democratic phase, a very toxic situation was created and an uprising was entirely predictable.

An important point to note is that there is very little cultural compatibility with the communities in which they trade and as I understand it from the social anthropologists, this is the first fault line in social harmony and stability. Their dominant presence has resulted in a form of cultural disruption. Naturally they will be viewed with suspicion as unwelcome “strangers”. This is what xenophobia is all about.

It is instructive to visit any black township and observe, without fail, groups of young adolescent men ‘’hanging- out’’ at street corners with forlorn faces and nothing to do while ‘’strange’’ people, completely unknown to them, are engaged in successful trade in their communities. All they can see everywhere is rising opportunities for the few and not for them in the new democratic South Africa that promised a ‘’better life for all’’.

An even more scary development is the constant and consistent claim by these communities that the growing problem of drug dealers and abuse is blamed on the illegal migrants. The members of these communities, especially in the downtrodden CBD’s, claim that they know the drug dealers. They know their names. They know that they are illegal migrants and they know where they live. Clearly the police have failed to protect these communities and enforce law and order. As we have seen in Rosettenville, the next step was not difficult to imagine!

A more critical factor that I believe is significant in understanding the growing level of frustration in the communities is how externalities played a role in shaping the current attitudes. They constitute a confluence of factors that has become a perfect storm.

South Africa is trapped in a slow growth scenario for the next five years with the formal sector shedding jobs on a continuous basis. We are currently experiencing the highest levels of unemployment and inequality in the world. Our dysfunctional education system is failing to produce the intended outcomes in the context of a growth trajectory that places emphasis on higher level skills and high value and technology driven production. Very few people are employed or enjoy gainful activity in relation to the population that is able to work and our entrepreneurship activity is very low compared to our competitor countries.

At the centre of all this is that our immigration control system has clearly failed us. Home Affairs have no clue as to the number of undocumented and illegal migrants in the country at this moment. Targeting employers to identify undocumented employees is a reactionary and disingenuous public stunt by Home Affairs that is intended to mask their incompetence while they ignore the real and growing sources of anger in the black townships and the decaying CBD’s.

The biggest problem is the colonization and invasion of a very special kind that has been allowed to expand unabated and very successfully in the black townships in the past two decades. It constitutes the biggest threat to peace and stability in our young democracy. And it could have been prevented. A bigger policy question is whether migrants should be permitted to compete at the micro retail level.