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The painful context behind the xenophobic violence in Soweto

The xenophobic violence in Soweto has elicited a much-needed public debate on the possible causes and what to do about it. Radio talk shows have discussed this issue the whole week. Researchers have also weighed in with interesting data that demonstrate that these traders are not as dominant as we might think. But what we miss here is that statistics without context can be very misleading. The social context is very critical to what is happening. What do I mean?

First, we must remember that the townships were created as labour reservoirs for the apartheid economy. Efforts by black people to create businesses in their own communities were suppressed and systematically frustrated by the regime at the time. We all know about the trials and tribulations of those who succeeded.

Second, 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 stability in these communities.

Third, the level of poverty in the black communities is harrowing. The socio-economic data coming out of Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) and other research organisations paint a depressing picture about the living conditions of a large segment of our society that continues to live in poverty despite the promises made prior to the 1994 elections. Dale McKingley presents the following picture: “Extreme poverty, which is defined by StatsSA as a household of five living on less than R11 a day, has now reached 20% of the population. Moderate poverty — incredulously set at R22 a day for a household of five — encompasses just over 40% of the population. The vast majority in both categories are black South Africans.”

Fourth, we failed to develop an intervention strategy aimed at promoting small and micro businesses in those communities because we focussed our efforts at promoting black empowerment policy that has succeeded in creating a small elite class of comprador businessmen and politicians who have created no new assets.

Fifth, we have been shedding jobs in the formal economy for many years now and unemployment is at 40% of the working population. And, we add a minimum of 450 000 people to this number every year because of our failing education system.

Poverty and unemployment have generated a real sense of hopelessness and anger. This anger is more visible in the youth who constitute the majority of the unemployed. Now, bring into the mix the foreign traders who dominate the spaza business sector in these communities and you have the potential for a flair-up at any moment. All it needs is a spark.

What has happened in Soweto will erupt again in the near future. This xenophobic violence is inexcusable and must be condemned for what it is. We can expect more in the future. This is inevitable. Any attempt at couching it in some creative language as some politicians are trying to do will only serve to mask the problem rather than confront it.


  • Thabang Motsohi

    Thabang is a very experienced and leading strategy consultant with more than 20 years of executive management experience. His forte and focus as an organizational strategist concerns helping organisations develop vision aligned strategies and deal with repositioning challenges in changing market environments while maintaining a sustainable and competitive advantage. He is a graduate of the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. He has also completed the Harvard Senior Executive Programme.