As a white middle class foreigner in the middle of the xenophobic attacks in South Africa I find myself in a peculiar situation. I am a foreigner, but not a target of the xenophobia.
The xenophobic attacks earlier this year have been carried out by South African nationals against, not only foreigners, but also people born in South Africa with heritage from both African countries and Asia. The attacks have been taking place at night, in the poorer urban areas, and townships. Poor attacks poorer. Despite being a foreigner I have very little reason to fear the attacks. I might live geographically close to the townships, namely, underdeveloped urban areas that used to be segregated during apartheid, but socially I live in another world, if not another planet. Therefore the talk about xenophobia is somewhat misleading since it is not targeting all foreign people.
When we get calls to the office, my colleagues, some from other countries in Africa, jokingly answer the phone with the phrase “all foreigners in the office are okay and they are safe”. And they are, since they have the possibility to avoid going to the townships; they have a higher paying job and live in other areas. Of course, if they walk in the wrong area they will be targeted and so will I, probably.
The violence in the townships is targeting foreign business owners that own spaza shops, a kind of informal kiosk selling daily necessities. The perpetrators are targeting people who they believe are taking their jobs. Even though there is no such thing as foreigners “taking” someone else’s job, maybe there is a truth to the fact that the foreign shop owners do challenge the South African business owners with their lower salary and longer work hours, however it is only a symptom of a much bigger problem. The foreigners are not the problem, poverty and insufficient law enforcement are.
During these attacks, the president, Jacob Zuma, has been accused several times for not doing enough. He has come out in television broadcasted speeches where he is condemning the violence, but that is about it. His speeches are filled with political words that mean very little to the people affected and the words he uses can sometimes be read as disliking foreigners. The police use the violence as an excuse to go into the township and raid peoples’ homes.
The camps and the shelter that have been set up for the targeted population are facilitated by volunteers.
On TV and radio, both the state and the commercial channels, run daily ads reminding us that the other African countries help South Africa during apartheid, hiding the anti-apartheid movement, and above all to tell us that there is only ONE Africa, not several. However, I see no ads for solidarity with East Asians. On the streets big billboards appear with big bold letters saying: “Say NO to xenophobia!” and on the brick walls people have graffitied the same message.
At the end of the day I am not questioning that it is foreigners that are being targeted and that are suffering, but I do wonder how much of this has to do with xenophobia and how much that has to do with poverty and frustration. The people are being targeted due to economic fear and uncertainty, not because of their skin colour. However, the skin colour and lack of social network in the new country make them an easy target. The xenophobia in other venues makes them extra vulnerable and as always it is the ones who already are the most vulnerable who suffer the most.