David Parry-Davies
David Parry-Davies

Xenophobia: The environmental causes

Firstly, let’s clarify what the term “environment” means. Long gone are the days when environment simply referred to fauna and flora. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, the slogan “sustainable development” referred to a triangular relationship between people, planet and prosperity — giving each an equal importance.

More recently this understanding has evolved further and it is now understood that the very foundation of our survival and well-being rests on the health of our ecological systems. Without a healthy ecology and the life-supporting services that they provide, society simply could not exist and in turn, without society, business could not exist. However, critical to and influencing all these aspects, is the influence and effect of political policy and decisions.

So where does xenophobia fit into this?

Let’s begin by questioning the real causes of xenophobic attacks.

If all people in South Africa had sufficient resources to live on — adequate food, water, education, housing and medical services — do you think we would currently have these xenophobic attacks? I think not!

If the core of the problem were xenophobia (defined as “a strong or morbid dislike of foreigners”), why are we only encountering this problem now? We were previously justifiably proud to be referred to as the “rainbow nation”! And why, if we are morbidly afraid of foreigners, are such attacks targeted only at Africans? No Germans, British, Americans have yet been targeted and attacked in this way.

Is it not more probable that the reason for attack is not hatred or fear of foreigners, but rather competition for resources?

Our own South African population does not have access to enough basic resources to live comfortably with dignity. So the poorest of the poor, with the least resources, in desperation to acquire sufficient to meet their basic needs turn on the softest, most vulnerable targets (foreigners without the social and legal support structures to protect them) to fight for resources (looting shops and homes). And why is this happening now? We are now beginning to feel the effect of a number of growing environmental crises that have been mismanaged or not managed at all, which are hitting the poorest first and hardest.

Some of the more easily identifiable environmental crises that are affecting the poor and “triggering” a xenophobic response include:

  • Oil price increases: A predictable environmental effect (see the topic “Oil peak”). This is not only increasing the cost of getting to and from work, but is also rapidly driving up the cost of all commodities and basic foods, which threatens the very survival of the poor.
  • Crop failures: A predictable effect of climate change also increasing basic food costs affecting the health, livelihoods and survival of the poorest.
  • Population: The harsh reality is that at present, our own South African population does not have sufficient access to adequate food, shelter, education and medical services. Yet, despite this reality, current political policy and immigration control have allowed a huge influx of populations from neighbouring countries, the poorest and least qualified of whom naturally compete directly with our own poorest and most vulnerable populations for basic resources.
  • Outdated and dysfunctional economic models: While the world has seen tremendous economic growth in the recent past, this has not been reflected by a commensurate improvement in quality of living. For most, in fact, there has been a steady decline in quality of living and a growing polarisation in which the rich few become richer, and the poor become even poorer. The huge discrepancy between the super-rich and the poor is enough to generate an underlying anger and resentment which we ignore at our peril. Remember the conditions preceding both the French and Russian revolutions?
  • Without exploring the complexity of other pertinent factors, these four environmental conditions alone are sufficient to create an explosive tension within our poorest and hardest-hit communities that can easily be manipulated by criminal elements.

    Thus, for any politician to point a finger at our poor communities and self-righteously accuse them of wicked xenophobic behaviour is at best to have a very superficial and short-sighted understanding of the current situation, or at worst an utterly cynical and disingenuous attempt to divert attention from the real issues of political and economic mismanagement relating to urgent environmental issues.

    The surge of care and concern for affected foreigners from the average South African, many of whom have responded with great generosity, is heartening and reassuring, but we do need to recognise that xenophobia is only a symptom and a consequence of many environmental factors. Thus any effective long term solution will need to include:

  • Responsible environmental planning in local and national government to cope with the challenges of oil peak, climate change and conservation of our natural resources.
  • A pragmatic review of immigration — policy and practice
  • A re-evaluation of our current economic models that have produced an obscene discrepancy between those with excessive wealth and those enduring squalor and starvation. As Mahatma Gandhi said: “There is enough to meet every man’s need — but not every man’s greed.” The wealthy and politically influential elite in South Africa (most of whom have benefited from 14 years of empowerment and redistribution of wealth) need to recognise that it is in their own long-term interests to share their wealth and access to resources more broadly, consistent with the African spirit of ubuntu.
  • The xenophobic crisis provides a perfect opportunity to begin thinking in a different way, looking at current social and economic challenges with a more holistic perspective and seeing the systemic interconnectedness of all these factors. Looking at current challenges in an environmental context will enable us to overcome short term symptoms of the problems more quickly, and enable us to deal with the major environmental challenges we face more effectively in the long run.