Does Ramaphosa Have what it Takes Fight Xenophobia ?

The ANC's positioning has emboldened those who seek to scapegoat immigrants for the socio-economic challenges South Africans face.

On 25 May 2022, during the celebration of Africa Day, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa urged unity among Africans. Specifically addressing South Africans, he asserted: “our brothers and sisters from elsewhere in Africa are not our enemies.” This declaration suggests that South Africa might be ready to address the ‘anti-Africans’ xenophobia that tarnishes its image on the continent. Indeed, before Ramaphosa’s intervention, the leadership of the ANC had not demonstrated any seriousness in confronting such vile sentiments, with the ruling party often choosing denial when confronted with xenophobic violence.

The ANC remains South Africa’s most popular political party, albeit with dwindling electoral fortunes. Surprisingly, as a political party with strong Pan-African roots and ethos, ANC’s actions seem not to always fit in neatly with claims of African solidarity. For instance, since 2021, South Africa has seen the rising profile of Operation Dudula, a movement that ostensibly seeks to bolster employment opportunities for South Africans by forcing the ejection of illegal immigrants plying their trade in South Africa.The movement has been enthusiastically embraced by frustrated South Africans, especially the poor and unemployed who think that the presence of immigrants occludes their chances of finding employment and hopefully climbing out of poverty into the higher rung of the social mobility ladder. Beside this dubious reasoning lies the undeniable presence of anti-foreign sentiment in South Africa – and this applies almost in equal measure to both documented and undocumented immigrants. Sadly, the ANC has not persuasively disavowed Operation Dudula and its vigilante-like tactics against whom it describes as illegal immigrants. Even though the group claims to be against only illegal immigration, the fact that the word dudula means to “push” or “drive back’ is an instructive indicator of what the group is really about: to drive back all foreigners. Indeed, after noting Operation Dudula’s growing traction, the ANC obliquely sided with it by asserting that it had been too flexible in dealing with undocumented immigrants. As expected, this positioning emboldened those who sought to scapegoat immigrants for the socio-economic challenges South Africans face.

Moreover, rather than confront the rising xenophobia, the ANC’s leadership had adopted an ostrich policy. During Thabo Mbeki’s presidency (1999-2008), for instance, the ANC’s denial of xenophobia as the impulse behind attacks on foreign nationals became the party’s dogma. At the height of the 2008 xenophobic attacks, which happened in May – the so-called Africa month – Mbeki delivered an Africa Day speech in which he did not care to mention the word xenophobia or describe the attacks as such in the speech. The same was the case in 2019, when then Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Lindiwe Sisulu, described that year’s attacks as criminal and urged the police to act “without fear or favour.” Mbeki’s and Sisulu’s and indeed the ANC’s reluctance to admit that xenophobia is the reason for the incessant attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa creates confusion between ordinary crime and xenophobic violence – presenting them as though they are one and the same. Why is proper characterisation important? It would allow for adequate measures to be taken to deal with the problem. Awkwardly, while characterising anti-foreign attacks only as criminal or, in Mbeki’s parlance “township thuggery” rather than xenophobia, the government crafted the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. This was an acknowledgment, even if tacitly, of the existence of a problem that the ANC had always denied. Even more awkwardly, though, is the fact that the Plan was published on 25 March 2019, the very day when widespread attacks against foreign nationals in South Africa’s port city of Durban broke out, signalling that while some policies were being launched to curb the violence, the ruling party was still reluctant to unequivocally denounce xenophobia as the driving ideology behind this violence.

During his speech, President Ramaphosa argued that animosity among Africans could unwittingly imitate the intent of apartheid, i.e., the separation of Africans based on race, ethnicity and nationality. Anti-foreign attacks in 2008, 2015 and 2019 brought to global attention South Africa’s hostility to increasing numbers of African migrants streaming through South African borders for various reasons. This was especially in 2019 when, in the wake of attacks on foreign nationals, certain African countries such as Nigeria, Madagascar, and Zambia retaliated by attacking South African franchises, and boycotting sporting engagements with South Africa and protesting at South African embassies. These boycotts were similar to the isolation that apartheid South Africa suffered from the rest of the continent. That it was happening during the tenure of the ANC’s watch, a movement with Pan-African origins and values, and a beneficiary of African solidarity, is understandably an embarrassment for the ANC.

Clearly, winning the war over xenophobia in South Africa will require much more than perfunctory declarations on 25 May commemorations or during diplomatic engagements. The ANC and, ipso facto,the government, would be better advised to decide on one stance to which all should commit. The mounting of a successful campaign against scandalous levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality which remain high in the country is an important part of the solution. Indeed, one of the most pressing tasks before the ANC is the substantial transformation of the most unequal economy in the world. However, more urgent is to renounce the denialist approach that shrinks from the blindingly obvious reality that xenophobia does play a role in antipathy and violence towards immigrants.

President Ramaphosa’s declaration on Africa Day offers a glimmer of hope that things might change. Whether concrete actions will follow to effectuate this remains to be seen. 

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