S. Africa: The shadow of xenophobia and fear

Tichaona Zindoga recently in Sandton, South Africa
There has never been a stronger fallout from xenophobic attacks in South Africa as what has happened lately. In South Africa, black foreign nationals, drawn to the allure of the continent’s leading economy, are often beaten up, robbed and killed for the simple reason that they don’t belong here.

Or more specifically, because they are accused of all manner of ills ranging from “stealing” jobs and women, selling drugs and fake products.

And when a reason for a season of violence comes, the world is treated to barbaric scenes of black South Africans beating, killing and even setting foreigners alight.

Bloodthirsty young men brandish machetes, sticks and stones or whatever rudimentary instrument of violence they can lay their hands on and hunt down the enemy.

They sing. They chant. The women ululate.

Shops and properties are ransacked and, boy, what a happy season of free goods!

A fortnight ago, the beast was in heat again. According to news reports, at least 12 people were killed while 1 000 foreign-owned business were targeted.

A huge fallout then ensued. African countries and citizens were unhappy.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who was supposed to attend the World Economic Forum in Cape Town, cancelled his trip in protest.

So did leaders of Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Zambia cancelled a match between its football team and South Africa.

A couple of music stars that were supposed to attend a gala called off their trips.

Nigeria, Malawi and Zimbabwe began repatriating their citizens.

Nigeria went further: The country houses a number of South African big businesses and it threatened sanctions. Its citizens threatened to pay back in kind.

There was a clear diplomatic standoff that forced South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to send an envoy of peace.

Jeff Radebe went and met the Nigerian president a few days ago.

According to Al Jazeera: “The incident does not represent what we stand for,” Radebe said, adding South African police would “leave no stone unturned, that those involved must be brought to book”.

The Nigerian government said in a statement that President Buhari had responded “to profuse apologies from the South African president, pledging that relationship between the two countries will be solidified.”

President Ramaphosa has been effusive in apologising for the aberration.

On September 14, while visiting Zimbabwe for the memorial of former president Robert Mugabe he addressed Zimbabweans at the National Sports Stadium.

He apologised.

“In the past two weeks, we as South Africans have been going through a challenging period . . .

“We have had acts of violence erupting in some parts of the country, some of which was directed at nationals from other African countries.

“This has led to the deaths and injuries of a number of people, some of whom were nationals from other countries and the majority were South Africans.

“I stand before you as a fellow African to express my regret, and to apologise for what has happened in our country.

“What has happened in South Africa goes against the principles of the unity of the African people that President Mugabe and President Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and the great leaders of our continent stood for,” he said.

The pressure had just mounted.

In the intervening days, the president in other public events, made similar calls, in an attempt to shake off the monkey on South Africa’s back.

Shadow of fear
Between September 11-13, South Africa hosted an annual media conference drawing participants predominantly from the African continent.

The conference was held in Sandton, the so-called Africa’s richest square mile, which is a premier venue for conferencing, deal-cutting and hospitality.

It is far away from the madding crowds of the townships where bloodthirsty black people hunt and hound each other and fellow blacks out.

Sandton has its own serenity, itself an axiom of how the country is in fact desperately divided between the haves and the have-nots.

Sandton is a country-within-a-country. To illustrate the contrasts better, Sandton is located just a stone’s throw away from Alexandra township — notoriously known as Alex — which is as squalid a settlement as any place can get. And, of course, violence always manifests the worst, whether it is against poor service delivery — which black communities here suffer — or against foreigners.

A few years ago a colleague recalled during a tour that he was told that, “Here is where they burn you alive”. It is that cringe-worthy.

Hence, Sandton has an aura of serenity that belies the deep undercurrents of the world’s most unequal country — see article, “South Africa is the world’s most unequal country. 25 years of freedom have failed to bridge the divide” (CNN, May 10, 2019).

Many of the visitors may have had this feeling of living (or staying, in our case) under the shadow of some dark fear.

Outside of xenophobia, there are five other deeply troubling phenomena one could divine:

  • Femicide
  • White genocide
  • Robbery & Murders
  • Taxi wars

There is reason to be afraid — and be afraid in South Africa.

On Friday last week, Sandton was shut down in the morning. Women and other interest groups were protesting against increasing violence and murder against women. This is what they are calling femicide.

It is what is described as, “The intentional killing of females [women or girls] because they are females.”

On September 5, a publication, News24, noted that: “In 2017/8, 2 930 adult women murdered. It has been widely shared online that a woman is murdered every four hours in South Africa. That statistic was correct between April and December 2016. According to the most recent data from 2017/18, a woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa.” The statistics indicate that 15,2 murders for every 100 000 adult women in South Africa.

Further, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), cited by the publication, the rate of the murder of South African women was 4,8 times the global average rate of 2,6, meaning that South Africa had the fourth highest female interpersonal violence death rate out of the 183 countries listed by WHO in 2016.

White people, especially farmers, are claiming that a genocide is taking place against them. There is a lot of politicisation of the issue, though.

However, it is important to point out that, there is a spate of murders of white farmers in the countryside which apart from criminality also touches the core of the uneasy race relations in the country that are fed by historical and structural inequalities.

Then some scary parts.

South Africa’s crime statistics for 2018/19 were released by the police in parliament on September 12 2019 (Citizen, September 12, 2019).

We are told that the number of murders in South Africa increased from 20 336 in 2017/18 to 21 022 in 2018/19.

On average, 58 people were murdered every day.

The national murder rate increased from 35,8 per 100 000 people to 36,4.

Over the past seven years murder has risen by 35 percent, according to the statistics.

Most murders (70 percent) were committed on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday — leading to debates as to whether alcohol, consumed generously here, has a part in it.

Grim, grim
In terms of robberies, the statistics are grim.

According to official statistics, in 2018/19, 51 765 common robberies were recorded, up from 50 730 the year before. On average, 142 common robberies were recorded each day.

Robbery with aggravating circumstances — when a person uses a gun or weapon to commit a robbery — were recorded as having occurred 140 032 times in 2018/19. On average, 384 robberies with aggravating circumstances were recorded each day.

On the other hand, there were 22 431 incidents of house robberies reported — up from 22 261 in 2017/18. On average, 61 households were robbed each day.

Other scary statistics say that 605 houses are burgled per day while 44 cars were hijacked each day.

There is a good reason to be afraid in South Africa. These statistics crawl on your skin.

If you are familiar with South Africa and its less glorious side, here in Sandton, you have a sense that you are in a golden cage.

Then, at times, the fear comes knocking: there are numerous “taxi wars” that often take tourists by surprise.

These are turf wars that taxi associations engage against each other and against other forms of transport and operators.

According to a story on the New York Times, more than 200 000 minibus taxis operate nationally, carrying around 15 million people each day, according to the South African National Taxi Council.

The country’s largest yet most poorly regulated transport sector, it accounts for nearly two-thirds of all non-private commuter trips in South Africa, with an estimated annual revenue of more than US$1,2 billion.

The industry is run “Mafia-like”. In Sandton, Uber (in the metonymous sense) drivers live in fear of “meter taxis”, locals who have an exaggerated sense of entitlement — perhaps just like many others. A certain ethnic grouping is rumoured to be behind the spate of violence on the basis of this superiority complex.

The newer, cheaper and more luxurious cars operated by fintechs such as Uber and Bolt, which are international companies, get burnt and drivers murdered when violence flares up.

Now, an uneasy truce is existing whereby Uber operators are not allowed to pick up in certain areas, but only to drop off passengers.

“There is no need to be fighting,” a driver tells me. “We keep our territory.”

Asking an Uber driver about the state of taxi wars is a great subject to pick up a sympathetic conversation.

But then, not all drivers are nice and warm. One took me to Hilton Hotel and clearly enjoyed the fact that on that day, there was news that a planeload of Nigerians was leaving the country.

The news said 600 Nigerian nationals were being repatriated.

“That is a small number,” retorts my driver, “they should all leave this country!”