Pallo Jordan, Business Day, 19 September 2013
THE shocking attacks on Somali-owned shops in the Port Elizabeth townships this weekend are an indictment of our failure as South Africans. Walking through our cities, it is clear SA has become an attractive destination to millions from our region and beyond. There are parts of Johannesburg where French and Portuguese are the languages one hears on the streets. In the towns of the Eastern Cape, one often finds that the local shop owner is from the Indian subcontinent. Until recently, the 7-Eleven I frequent in my Cape Town neighbourhood was run by a Congolese woman and her daughters.
These are unremarkable patterns of immigration and urban migration many countries have witnessed over the past 200 years. The occupants of storefront sites of worship in New York’s Lower East Side attest to the immigration of a variety of communities in the 20th century. Storefronts that served as synagogues earlier in the previous century became storefront Puerto Rican evangelical churches in the 1950s, only to be taken over as Hare Krishna and Buddhist temples when hippies took over the neighbourhood in the late 1960s.
New arrivals gravitate to poorer neighbourhoods to occupy the housing left behind as native populations climb the social ladder. Low-paid, unskilled menial jobs are then taken over by migrants from the rural areas or by new immigrants. Even in instances of high unemployment, native-born workers choose the dole rather than accept work they consider beneath them. One rarely finds native-born South Africans offering their services as gardeners, even though thousands have no jobs.
During an outbreak of xenophobic violence in Cape Town in 2006, spaza shop operators in the informal settlements blamed Somali shopkeepers for the failure of their own businesses. These spaza shop owners incited the violence to drive their competitors from the field. The looting that accompanied the weekend’s pogroms in Port Elizabeth suggests economic competition was a factor.
Immigrants tend to cluster together for warmth in an alien environment. They set up mutual support networks and send home remittances to support families. Immigrants are usually highly motivated people who are willing to take risks. Driven from home by circumstance, immigrants usually undertake a passage of no return in the knowledge that they either make it in the new country or go under. Consequently, they are prepared to work harder for less.
The complaints one hears against the foreign-born range from the ridiculous to the reckless. A recent survey found that close to 40% of our young people regard foreigners as an undesirable presence. Worse, their hostility is directed almost exclusively against immigrants from Africa and Asia. Apparently, according to such respondents, whites from Europe and the Americas may come and go as they please. But blacks from the Third World are a problem. They blame foreign-born Africans for the attacks on their businesses, claiming immigrants have a negative effect on businesses owned by locals.
Such crude nativism resonates with too many South Africans. It tells us that our people have not come to terms with the place SA occupies on the African continent. Having rid ourselves of the stench of apartheid, SA’s economy has become a powerful attraction for those in search of opportunity.
Foreign-born Africans, especially from our region, have played a significant role in the development of our economy. Since the opening of the Witwatersrand gold fields, SA’s mines have employed Mozambican mine workers in large numbers. Lesotho, Swaziland and, before it began exploiting its own mines, Botswana, contributed hundreds of workers to SA’s farms and mines every year. The large Indian population of KwaZulu-Natal are descendants of labourers recruited to work on the sugar plantations.
Since 1994, professionals and business people from Africa and Asia have augmented these numbers. SA’s educational institutions, health services and corporate boardrooms have benefited. Immigrants from Africa and Asia arrive with many of the scarce skills our economy requires for swifter and more consistent growth. Reckless attacks on foreign-born Africans and Asians, fuelled by ignorance and prejudice, amount to shooting SA in both feet. The government is still wrestling with the elaboration of immigration policies that will attract talent and skills.
Active grass-roots interventions contained the last wave of xenophobia. The scale of the violence in Port Elizabeth is indicative of a collective failure to root out such prejudices amongst our people.
The government cannot combat xenophobia on its own. The eradication of xenophobia will require a huge public campaign to educate our people not only about the inevitability of immigration but also about its desirability for the success of our nation.