XENOPHOBIA deepening

Ido Lekota

Ido Lekota

The attacks on foreign nationals in May and the subsequent debacles around their future in this country has raised several questions about how South Africans deal with migrants - especially those from African countries.

Central to the debate around the attacks was their labelling, mainly by the media, as xenophobic attacks.

Embedded in this definition is the notion that South Africans are generally xenophobic, that is, they have a deep antipathy towards or hatred of foreigners.

Speaking in July at a ceremony to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the attacks, President Thabo Mbeki rejected the notion that South Africans were xenophobic.

"When I heard some accuse my people of xenophobia, of hatred of foreigners, I wondered what the accusers knew about my people, which I did not know. Over many years I have visited many parts of our country, both urban and rural, in all our provinces, and met many people from other countries, including African countries, who have not hesitated to announce their countries of origin.

"On these and other occasions I have known that these immigrants could thus openly introduce themselves because they knew, from their experience, that because they had not experienced any xenophobia, they had no need to hide their countries of origin."

Instead, Mbeki said the attacks were the work of criminals who regarded foreigners as easy targets for their heinous acts.

"What happened during those days was not inspired by a perverse nationalism, or extreme chauvinism, resulting in our communities violently expressing the hitherto unknown sentiment of mass and mindless hatred of foreigners - xenophobia.

"Those who have eyes to see will have seen that much of the violence we experienced was targeted at the immigrants who had property to loot. Those who have eyes to see will have seen that the majority of the immigrants who live in conditions of poverty as do many of our people were not attacked."

Mbeki's assertions drew various responses, including those accusing him of engaging in his favourite pastime - denialism.

Research conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HRSC) and the Institute for Security Studies in 1996 and 1997 showed that South Africans were becoming more xenophobic in their attitude towards migrants generally and illegal immigrants in particular.

The survey showed that almost two-thirds of respondents (65 percent) believed that illegal immigration was "bad" or "very bad" for the country.

Eighty percent of respondents were in favour of the government trying to curb a further influx of illegal immigrants by strengthening border patrols; 65 percent were in favour of enforced repatriation and 73 percent were in favour of penalising employers who hire illegal immigrants.

Interestingly, the HRC/ISS debunked some of the myths about xenophobia. The situation has changed drastically since the survey. It is now estimated that there are more than five million illegal migrants in South Africa.

The trend has been to blame the recent attacks on this "deluge of illegal immigrants" who settle in poor communities like Alexandra, where the attacks happened.

There are those in South Africa who view xenophobia as a sentiment generally confined to individuals at the lower end of the socio-economic and educational spectrum.

On the contrary, the survey showed that anti-illegal immigrant sentiments increased concomitant with an increase in educational qualifications.

Professor Hussein Solomon of the University of Pretoria argued that as people were better educated, they were more conscious of the perceived threat that illegal immigration held for South Africa.