South Africa is becoming a pariah in Africa

Recent Afrophobic attacks demonstrate the Rainbow nation is increasingly embracing an exceptionalist identity.

South Africa attacks Reuters
A shopkeeper watches as a fireman douses a burned and damaged property after overnight unrest and looting in Johannesburg [Marius Bosch/Reuters]

On September 8, a group of people armed with sticks held a march in Johannesburg calling on African migrants to leave South Africa’s biggest city. The demonstration, which left one dead and five injured, followed a turbulent week of deadly attacks on African migrants and migrant-owned businesses in the country. 

Such violence is neither new to the country, nor surprising. For years, South African politicians have found it more convenient to feed xenophobia rather than address it, to blame foreigners for poverty and the absence of basic services than to admit to their own failures to provide for the needs of the impoverished majority. Today the South African economy is on the verge of recession and the political elite needs to wash its hands.

This political strategy, while effective in distracting the electorate in the short term, has had a devastating impact on the national psyche. It appears that the South African nation is increasingly embracing Afrophobia, disregarding its own history of oppression and African solidarity.

Remembering history

Amid the animosity and aggression aimed at African migrants, it is hard to discern whether the South Africans participating in the pogroms on (black) foreigners remember how not long ago they (and their parents and grandparents) were themselves ruthlessly persecuted.

Throughout the decades of apartheid violence, many South Africans sought refuge in African countries. Many of the anti-apartheid movement were living in exile in African capitals. Their struggle was bankrolled by African governments who had just achieved freedom and independence; Nigeria alone was sending some $5m annually to South African freedom fighters, including the African National Congress (ANC).

The humanitarian and organisational support extended to South Africa during the apartheid years fully espoused the principles of pan-Africanism and revealed a continent willing to go to great lengths to support the freedom cause of one of its own. 

The solidarity the continent showed with South Africa’s struggle for liberation was an example of thoughtful, progressive African unity in action. And although supporting South Africa’s liberation movements came at a substantial human and economic cost for many African nations, especially for Zambia and Mozambique, the sacrifices made paled in significance to the strong imperative to fight the apartheid regime.  

A conscious understanding of Africanness, indeed, warrants an obligation to value our shared, difficult past and intertwined present and future. 

Our pre-colonial and post-independence struggles form the indelible fabric upon which our individual African identities find true, proper and viable character. Like it or not, from Cape Town to Cairo, we are all, in equal measure, Africans – with African problems to resolve. 

And it was not that long ago that South African leaders understood that. President and ANC leader Thabo Mbeki, for example, played a leading role in the establishment of a New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). Conceived during a period Mbeki championed an “African Renaissance”, NEPAD was an economic programme dedicated to promoting Africanism, eradicating poverty and supporting sustainable growth and development in Africa, as well as fostering a sense of “mutual responsibility” among African nations. 

Pariah in Africa

Today these ideas and the facts of the recent past seem all but forgotten by a sizeable chunk of the South African society and political elite.

Many South Africans and their politicians who fuel xenophobic sentiments refuse to acknowledge that many of these migrants have fled desperate, life-threatening, conflict-ridden environments and are simply seeking a safe and dignified life in South Africa. There seems to be a concerted effort to avoid discussion about the pervasive economic, climatic, social and political problems driving migration within sub-Saharan Africa and the need to show solidarity towards those seeking safety and sustenance for themselves and their families.

Many choose to ignore the obvious fact that whatever it does, the South African government will not be able to alleviate the widespread poverty, social injustice and inequality apartheid created by ostracising African migrants. It is not because of migration that the South African economy is collapsing today.

Due to this purposeful ignorance, South Africa has lost valuable democratic stock and respect in the eyes of many, as a result of these regular Afrophobic outbreaks, and the timing of the latest round of anti-African violence could not have been worse. It happened on the eve of the World Economic Forum in Cape Town and in the shadow of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, which positions South Africa as an economic gateway to the continent.  

There are now loud calls to boycott South African-owned businesses across the continent. Zambia and Madagascar cancelled friendly football matches against South Africa, while Tanzania even went as far as revoking all flights to the country. African superstars, like Tiwa Savage and Burnaboy, are vowing to boycott the “Rainbow nation” and there are rumblings that the African Union should not allow Cyril Ramaphosa to become its chairperson next year.

With its willingness to tolerate xenophobia, South Africa has managed to alienate the very countries that helped it liberate itself from the ghastly, desensitising and murderous depravities of identity-driven apartheid politics.

It is time the South African society takes action. It cannot rely on the political elite to change its cheap survival tactics and mobilise the state apparatus to address xenophobia. It has to start an open and honest debate about how it got to this point and search for that lost “ubuntu” (the belief in a universal bond that connects all humanity) that South Africa is supposed to be famed for.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.