EDITORIAL: Xenophobia - The past cannot justify the present

Saturday September 07 2019

Looters try to break into an alleged foreign-owned shop during a riot in Johannesburg, South Africa, on September 2, 2019. PHOTO | GUILLEM SARTORIO | AFP

By The EastAfrican

Perhaps more than mere statements by political leaders, that strong reaction from beyond their own borders could have done more to douse the flames of the latest flare-up of racial violence in South Africa.

Apologists for the violence have blamed it on the economic inequality spawned by apartheid on the South African society and xenophobia as the underlying causes.

There is no denying that apartheid was indeed a terrible system and that its lingering effects will be felt for generations. But the failures of the past cannot justify the mistakes of the present.

The South African economy has been in recession for a very long time. Youth unemployment is running at nearly 25 per cent. Matters were worsened by the commodity crash of 2015 from which the South African economy has not fully recovered. Little wonder, therefore, that a growing number of South Africans feel economically excluded.

Violence naturally tends to coincide with the peak of economic stress.

If apartheid entrenched a narrow world view in the mind of the average South African, the cyclical violence targeting the citizens of other African countries suggests that the country’s post-liberation leaders have not done enough to reverse this legacy. Indeed, evidence on record suggests that apartheid has given South Africa’s leaders near blanket cover to sweep their failures under the carpet.


Through various metaphors and allegory, South Africa’s post-apartheid leaders have at critical times that required them to account to citizens, fallen back on the age-old tactic of blaming external factors for what was not going right at home. That is how the foreigner, or Kwere Kwere in local slang, became the favourite scapegoat for the failure of economic equity in South Africa.

In this, President Cyril Ramaphosa is as guilty as any of the several politicians that have made inflammatory remarks suggesting foreign encroachment and swamping of South Africa.

If apartheid is its cause, then xenophobic violence is an expression of the economic discontent spawned by the failure of the post-apartheid elite to initiate an amicable way of rebalancing ownership of the South African economy.

The much-touted black empowerment has turned into nothing more than a vehicle for creating a pseudo black middle-class that is socially detached from the daily burdens of the average citizen.

In condemning and arresting those involved in the violence, South African authorities are only doing what any civil authority would do.

Though not intractable, the challenge at hand is much more complex and requires action on multiple fronts.

For a start, the leaders of the African National Congress should use the current events to initiate an honest dialogue about the legacy of apartheid, the false start of black empowerment, and how some of more insidious effects of apartheid can be untangled.