My neighbor is not my enemy: Understanding Xenophobia in South Africa

The current wave of violent xenophobic attacks that have reached a new peak in the past few weeks is the result of a cultural undercurrent that exists in the underbelly of South African society that pushes to the top periodically. These may be spurred on by further increases in unemployment, crime rates, political frustration, or an instance of confrontation that gets into the headlines. It is always there, it never goes away, but the resolution to the conflict is never satisfying enough to keep that undercurrent of xenophobia from making a strong return at another time.

In order to devise a conflict resolution strategy that can inform leaders of the two camps at odds, we need to understand the perspective of both sides. We need to break down the reasons for the frustrations and fears of the native South Africans toward the foreign nationals, and we need to understand the fears and frustrations of the foreign nationals. The common themes of fear and frustration are what we will dissect here.

The South African Perspective

The black South African is constantly reminded of the privilege they have to live in one of the most beautiful and economically prosperous countries on the continent. Sectors of lavish contemporary urban development that rival the “first world”, and breathtaking landscapes that bring in exuberant global reviews and tourism are only some of the characteristics of a country that they belong to, but that does not belong to them. He/she is subject to continual increases in the cost of living with a disproportionate or absent increase in average wages, inequitable access to education, inadequate social services, and a government that has disappointed time and again as a result of mismanagement. South Africans are seeking a way out of this life, a hope of a better tomorrow where they know their children won’t have to suffer under these conditions. And so, the natural tendency is to seek a target for this frustration – a place to direct their anger and blame for the unfair and unjust circumstances they find themselves in. The most accessible target: the perceived more prosperous foreign neighbor.

The Foreign National Perspective

Some left their countries to flee conflict and war. Others left with dreams and hopes of an education and better opportunities for a prosperous life. Yet others left for the opportunity to invest in an economically stable climate. The reasons they left their countries of Nigeria, DR Congo, Somalia, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and others, are as diverse as their languages and cultures. But they all came for one central reason: to find a better life in South Africa. To these foreign nationals, South Africa is the African version of a promised land. They work hard, they are resourceful, and they assimilate into society. Their assimilation is at all socio-economic levels and they fall into the normalcy of becoming the South African neighbor. They compete for jobs, they attend schools, they use available social services and they become South Africans. Their fear stems from the threat of having to go back where they came from, and their frustration is that they are not able to completely assimilate without the threat of their fears materialising. But they are not South African, and to some black South African nationals, they never will be. They are the perfect target.

 Xenophobic conditions are constructed

Under the above circumstances, the perfect xenophobic “storm” is created and flourishes. What the South African does not realize though is that the frustration and the resulting fear of those circumstances causing the perpetuation of their conditions is directed at the wrong target. The resolution they seek is not found in harming their neighbor whom they perceive to be the reason for their misfortune, but rather the solutions to their problems lie with the governing powers. Improvements in quality of life for South African people lies with the bureaucracy of the country.

Finding solutions

In the midst of these times, we can almost clearly hear the voice of our greatest leader rising from his resting place saying “Courage is not the absence of fear — it is inspiring others to move beyond it.” If we can move beyond the fear and frustration of our circumstances, we will see that what South Africa needs are changes to the policies and practices that contribute to the demise of our societal systems. The solutions are too vast for the scope of this article, but these may include immigration reform, improvements to social services, and government accountability for mismanagement. The morale and hope to move past the fear of foreigners being the cause of South Africa’s demise lies in the actions and messaging of South African leaders.

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Nicole Kaniki is a Ph.D. holder currently residing in London, Ontario, Canada. She completed a BSc Athletic Training at Lee University in Cleveland TN (USA) and an MSc Kinesiology (Sports Medicine) and Ph.D. Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (Research Measurement and Methods) at Western University, London ON. She is currently employed at Western University as a Research Development Officer where she manages Government and Federal grant programs for the institution. She is also completing an MA Women's Studies and Feminist Research for her interests in equity, diversity and inclusion in academia and social justice.

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