/Localised elite state violence: South Africa immigrants’ attacks – Yonela Mlambo

Localised elite state violence: South Africa immigrants’ attacks – Yonela Mlambo

Yonela Mlambo
PoliTeknik International Editoral Board Member, University of Cape Town – South Africa


The localised violent attacks on poor African immigrants by their South African counterparts is putatively said to be xenophobic attacks. However, in this paper, I argue that xenophobia terminology is not an appropriate term for understanding the phenomenon of the localised township and informal settlement violent attacks on the immigrants notwithstanding the widespread of the attacks in the country to certain townships because of local political economy and/or the politics by other means. What I mean by localised violent attacks is that the attacks happened in South Africa and in certain townships however they didn’t happen in all townships. Therefore, the terminology of xenophobia reaches its limitation as it simplifies the attacks and generalise the attacks as if all the immigrants were attacked yet specific immigrants that are attacked. The terminology xenophobia is silence on factors such as law/legality, class and race of the immigrants attacked thus xenophobia terminology masks the nature of the attacks and simplify the attacks. Concomitantly, this paper is going to argue that the attacks on the immigrants are localised violent attacks targeted poor African immigrants residing in townships and informal settlements in the country.

This paper is thematically divided in to three parts. The first part of the paper presents a migration theoretical framework. The second part focus on the causes of the attacks in the townships and informal settlements. The third part discusses solutions to the attacks of poor African immigrants in South Africa.

Migration theoretical framework

The approach to the attacks of immigrants in South Africa has been a blanket approach. Media report headlines, op-eds and social media all give the impression that immigrants are attacked in South Africa. This approach is very limited, and it portrays South Africa to be anti-immigrants, thereby instilling fear in tourists [white tourists] visiting South Africa and this concerns the government to the extreme. Subsequently, the government has responded accordingly to dispel xenophobic sentiments as a means to quell fears among tourists visiting South Africa. Moreover, the government, because the attacks are targeting poor African immigrants in townships and informal settlements, has characterised the attacks as an expression of self-hate, qua Afrophobia (Bernardo, 2015). Despite the government shedding a light and a point of departure to theorise frequent poor immigrants’ attacks in the country post-independence in 1994, scholars who have studied these attacks, insist the attacks are an expression of xenophobia behaviour (Monson and Misago, 2009, Tella, 2016, and Landau at el, 2009).

However, theorising about immigration, in African context, would offer us an opportune point of departure to understand South Africa’s notorious poor African immigrants’ attacks. Garba (2015) and Adepoju (1993) offers us a better explanation of the causes of immigration of the continent. Furthermore, Mamdani (2009) helps us to understand that immigration is not a recent phenomenon in Africa. Mamdani (2009) and Oyewumi (1997) further debunk the notion, however subtly, that Africa in the pre-colonial era did not have a regulated immigration and a borderless continent. This will be apparent in a moment.

Garba (2015) offers us a better locus of enunciation to the paradigm of immigration in the continent. Neoclassical economic theory views immigration to be the manifestation of the hidden hand of the market. Neoclassical economic theory posits that the market dictates the flow of labour in an asymmetrical manner. Neoclassical economic theory asserts that global trade comparatively unjustly favours the Global North (GN) at the expense of the Global South (GS). GN states attract labourers from the GS because of the high wages the GN offers (Garba, 2015).

There is no theoretical divergence from neoclassical economic theory and dual labour market theory theorising about immigration in the continent. Likewise, with neoclassical economic theory, dual labour market theory school of thought asserts that the asymmetric global trade favours the GN and the expense of GS. Dual labour market theory maintains that the GN initiates and perpetuates immigration through division of their [GN] economies. GN divides its economies in to primary and secondary sectors. The former sector is dominated by the nationals who are skilled thus command high remuneration while the latter sector is dominated by the immigrants who are unskilled. Moreover, the secondary sector is dominated by the immigrants, notwithstanding the immigrants being not adequately remunerated for their labour. The immigrants, more often because they are not protected by law, with no resistance, accept the meagre remuneration imposed unto them. Employment opportunities in the secondary sector are abundant at GN countries and they attract GS immigrants because the GN citizens contend the sector is not adequately remunerating and that secondary sector employment don’t have a social status. The previous assertions are the cause secondary sector employment in GN dominated by the immigrants (Garba, 2015).

New economics of labour migration school of thought not accentuated, nor it deviated from the previous two theories causalities of immigration. New economics of labour postulate immigration is initiate by the economics advancement disparities between GN and GS. It is paramount important that we note new economics of labour, unlike the previous two theories, afford GS subjects an agency, in lieu to yield agency to the economic factors (Garba, 2015). New economics of labour postulate that GS subject post pondering about its material conditions and seemingly not a discernible economic prospectus of economic growth and development on their respective countries at GS, the GS subjects then decide to seek better economic opportunities in the GN (Garba, 2015).

Furthermore, within the prisms of the theories of immigration in the continent, it would be remiss to be silent about the notorious neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has been touted to be the major cause of immigration in African. However, there has not been equal and/or balanced theorising of neoliberalism in the continent. Much of theorising about the effects of neoliberalism in the continent has favoured Africa and there has been silence on the home-grown neoliberalism effects. For instance, Ghana is said to be the first state in the continent to have initiated its own home-grown neoliberal policies prior the external imposed neoliberal policies by the Bretton Woods Institutions (BWI). Ghana initiated its own home-grown neoliberal policy Economic Recovery Programme (ERP) foreboded the external neoliberalism imposition to Ghana and the continent.

BWI notorious policies, qua Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) and Austerity Measures (AM) embrace market led economy for the pretence of economic recovery. Briefly, with the implementation of SAP the continent witnesses the privatisation of stateowned enterprises and parastatals, liberalisation of the economy which culminated with the shedding of many jobs in the public sector while AM advocate for cutting of budget in public services such as education and healthcare (Adepuju, 1993, Garba, 2015).

SAP and AM engendered immigration in the continent with peoples of the continent immigrating to GN seeking for employment opportunities (Garba, 2015). Nonetheless, to assert that immigration is a recent phenomenon in Africa would be a grave error.

Immigration in the continent is old as the continent. Mamdani (2009) offers us adequate locus of enunciation to enter the debate that immigration is not a recent phenomenon in the continent. Mamdani (2009) postulates that immigration in the continent is not a recent thing, however, Mamdani states what obscure its reality is that in Africa, pre-colonialism, the notion of absolute state did not find expression. Accordingly, Mamdani (2009, 139-143) postulate Africa precolonialism had social domains yet the social domains recognised neighbours’ borders albeit the borders were not as borders in the modern day. This is amplified when Mamdani (2009: 139-143) asserts that aggression was not tolerated and that neighbours were not aliens.

The notion of social domain, in lieu of absolute state, is further reinforced by Oyewumi (1997) that it was apparent in the continent pre-colonialism. It was impossible that a person would settle in a particular social domain without people of that particular social domain being not cognisant. This is amplified when a particular European settled certain Yoruban land. Oyewumi (1997) informs us that when that particular European settled went to the chief of that particular social domain requesting the land to settle albeit this European settler was surprised to hear from the chief that land was not a commodity to be sold in Yoruba. This was not limited to the Yoruba tribe; however it was an African system that land is not a commodity to be sold (Ngcukaitobi,2018:180). This manifest that social domain existed without physical borders as that particular chief didn’t allocate the land out of his social domain. (Oyewumi, 1997).

Mamdani (2009) and Oyewumi (1997) nullified the popular notions that Africa pre-colonialism was a borderless continent and reinforced thatparticular Mamdani (2009) -that popular notions that immigration in the continent is not a recent phenomenon. However, if, Africans, desire to learn to coexist, it is paramount important to acknowledge that the world is not stagnant and cease the desire of invariable wanting to be politically correct and be cognisant of the dire consequences that comes with the contemporary immigration if not proper regulated.

The next section looks at the attacks of immigrants in South African townships and informal settlements and posits that the immigrant attacks are an expression of the contemporary consequences of the immigration.

South Africa immigrants’ attacks

This section is going to argue that immigrants’ attacks in South African townships and informal settlements are not xenophobic expression, rather -they are localised attacks, an expression of local political economy and/or politics by other means (Misago, 2017). Landau at el (2009:105) adequately captures this phenomenon through stating that the attacks in South Africa are the micro-politics of townships albeit Landau at el they still insist that the attacks are xenophobic attacks. However, in this section I argue that the attacks cannot be said to be the expression of xenophobia as not all the immigrants are attacked.

The notion of localised violent attacks is that the attacks happened in South Africa and in certain townships however the attacks didn’t happen in all townships thus to generalise such attacks to be an expression of the xenophobia is a limited. Xenophobia terminology is silence on race, class and legal factors of the attacked immigrants.

Moreover, this section is going to show that the attacks are organised by the local leaders, local businessman, and argue that the quiescence of the state apparatus, qua South African Police services (SAPS) and the speeches made by the political leaders, fuel the attacks.

Garba (2015) and Adepoju (2007) aptly outlined migration theories and in particular Garba they stated that post the implementation of SAP and AM, African peoples immigrated to Germany, India and South Africa to seek for employment opportunities. South African in the continent having comparative economic advantage (Tella, 2016: 153), witness immigrants from the continent flocking in search for employment opportunities. Nonetheless, the poor immigrants from the continent were not welcomed with open arms by poor South Africans in the townships and informal settlements. However, it is important that we note that, albeit we are not going to parse on this point, immigration in South African is not a recent phenomenon. Immigration in South Africa can be traced as far as the discovery of minerals in the country (Cavanagh, 2017: 295).

The local leaders, and the governing elites, manipulates South African township and informal settlement dwellers convincing them that poor African immigrants are the cause of their misfortunes. These sentiments espoused local leaders and the governing elites has been aptly said to be the scapegoat theory (Monson and Misago, 2009: 25).

To adequate comprehend scapegoat theory- in the immigrants’ attacks context- is better that we juxtapose it with Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy limitations. In 1996, two (2) years post-independence, South Africa government adopted GEAR policy that yielded impressive economic growth yet with no employment opportunities (Mangcu, 2008). High unemployment rate (coupled with lack of service delivery in townships and informal settlement) disgruntled townships and informal settlement dwellers that culminated with a plethora of service delivery protests (Reddy, 2015). The service delivery protests, in their nature, are violent and public property is often damaged.

The poor African immigrants residing in township and informal settlement become the scapegoat that the township and informal settlement dwellers lacked better service delivery because of the poor African immigrants are taking the services meant for them (Misago, 2017: 41, Monson and Misago, 2009: 25 and Tirivangasi at el, 2015).

The failures of South African government to provide service delivery to township and informal settlement dwellers pitted township and informal settlement dwellers against the poor African immigrants. However, to say that the township and informal settlements dwellers had no agency over their leaders would be remiss. They could have refused to be the participants in the attacks.

Local leaders intervened and manipulated township and informal settlement dwellers to attack the immigrants because they said the immigrants are taking services meant for them. For instance, in Ramaphosa area, the local ward councillor of the area is said was involved in planning the attacks of the immigrants perpetuating the narrative of scapegoat theory (Misago, 2017 :43, 47-48, Landau at el ,105).

Itereleng and Alexandra townships are of the many notorious townships and informal settlements that have had local leaders involved in the attacks (Landau at el, 2009: 105). The leaders involved in unleashing the attacks on the immigrants are not limited to political leaders only, however, they extend to leaders in in civic organisations. The South Africa National Civil Organisation (SANCO), a civic organisation in alliance with the governing party (Misago, 2017: 45, Landau at el, 2009: 106), is said to have some of its leaders involved in planning of the attacks.

Most of the immigrants are in the business sector; they are shop owners (Misago 2017:41) thus they pose a competition to local businessman. The local businessman in one way or another, to curb competition, they are also involved in the attacks. The previous sentiments that local businessman are involved in the attacks manifested with the arrest of certain Western Cape businessman arrested for being involved in the attacks. However, the businessman, involved in the attacks, was later release because of the intervention of former Western Cape former Premier, Members of the Executive Committee and local police commander (Landau at el,2009:104).

Traditional leaders didn’t want to be left outside the crusade of espousing the attacks. King Zwelithini, in 2015, delivered a speech that incited the attacks (Reddy, 2015: 19 and Tella, 2016: 143, 151) yet King Zwelithini never faced the consequences for inciting the attacks. The possible explanation for King Zwelithini not being held accountable for his speech that incited the attacks, could be the customary law finding its expression in the indirect rule that made the traditional leaders to be semi-gods, qua that traditional leaders are above legal reproach (Mamdani,2009). The customary law, finding its expression of indirect rule, continue to rear its ugly head in South Africa and recently manifested itself with the release of King Buyelekhaya under the pretext of Presidential remission.

The SAPS can also not be exonerated from being quiescence about the attacks of poor immigrants (Monson and Misago, 2009: 27, Cavanagh, 2017). The SAPS involvement in the attacks is not limited in being reluctant to quell the attacks, in fact, the SAPS are involved and cognisant of the attacks as it is reported SAPS attend the meetings planning the attacks. The previous assertions are apparent with one of the respondents interviewed by Monson and Misago (2009:27), confirming that the members of SAPS would attend community meetings planning the attacks yet they would not disperse such gatherings nor conduct intelligent investigation to arrest the leaders involved in planning the attacks.

Moreover, in year 2000, certain SAPS members are reported to have unleashed police dogs to attack Mozambique immigrants (Tella, 2016: 143, 152). SAPS attitude and behaviour towards the immigrants is the reflection of governing elites’ sentiments on the immigrants in the country.

To substantiate my assertions that the SAPS members’ attitude and behaviour is the reflection of the governing elites’ sentiments, Waltz school of thought (Tella,2016) is of great assistance for me to substantiate my assertions. Waltz posits that the behaviour of the leaders influences the direction and/or the state policies (Tella2016). Therefore, when the governing elites are espousing anti- immigrants’ sentiments, we should then not be surprised when the ordinary people are expressing anti-immigration sentiments.

The assertions that South Africa governing elites harbour anti- immigrants’ sentiments are reflected in Mamdani (2017) speech Mamdani gave at the 8th Thabo Mbeki Africa Day Lecture. Mamdani (2017) said South African government fuelled the attacks through making the citizens to spy on each other on who is a South African citizen and not a South African citizen in their society and to report to the police those who are not the citizens. This in one way or another, fuelled anti- immigrants’ sentiments to ordinary South African citizens.

Tella (2016, 2016: 149) traces antiimmigrants’ sentiments in the governing elites as far as Nelson Mandela led administration with Nelson Mandela harbouring anti- immigrants’ sentiments. In the previous points we have cited Mamdani (2017) asserting that South African government fuelled anti- immigrants’ sentiments to its citizens. Thabo Mbeki obstinate refusal to acknowledge that in 2008 immigrants were attacked (Tella, 2016: 149) and characterising the attacks are merely an act of criminality is the refl ection of South African government antiimmigrants’ sentiments.

Jacob Zuma, likewise his predecessors, also harboured anti- immigrants’ sentiments. In the midst of the attacks, Jacob Zuma, in lieu to deliver a speech that was going to quell the attacks, Jacob Zuma called for the protection of the legal immigrants in the country (Tella, 2016: 150). The call by Jacob Zuma to protect the legal immigrants is the refl ection of the broader sentiments and notions that illegal immigrants are responsible for the crime in the country.

The current president, president Cyril Ramaphosa, has also been found wanting last year, 2019, on the attacks of the poor African immigrants, and lest is said about Cyril Ramaphosa response to the 2019 violent attacks on the poor migrants’ attacks, is the better. This is because it has become apparent norm for president Cyril Ramaphosa to be found wanting even on domestic matters. President Cyril Ramaphosa norm of being ever found wanting propelled John Steenhuisen (2019) aptly characterised president Cyril Ramaphosa behaviour to be that of a man in offi ce and not in power.

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi attempted to quell the attacks in Johannesburg despite that Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi attempts were futile. The governing elites tend to either forget fast or are so bent to populism and, perhaps, think that people forget fast as them [governing elites]. The very same Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi who attempted to quell the attacks is the very same men who once publicly expressed anti- immigrants’ sentiments. It is best that I cited Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi anti-immigrants’ sentiments here, “if we as South Africans are going to compete for scarce resources with millions of aliens who are pouring into South Africa, we can bid goodbye to our Reconstruction and Development Programme” (Tella, 2016: 150). Moreover, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi attempts were in fact no attempts as the men speech was more about himself and seeking appropriate respect for himself. Because the people are not gullible as the governing elites thinks they are, people left Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi on the stage and he can be heard raising ageism sentiments that the people will have cursed for not respecting and listening a man at his age speaking (Buthelezi, 2019).

The perceptions that the illegal immigrants are responsible to crime in South Africa (see earlier discussion) has resulted to government resorting to draconian operations. The government adopted Operation Crack Down hunting illegal immigrants to be deported back to their respective countries (Tella, 2016: 152 and Monson and Misago, 2009: 28). The deportation of the immigrants after the attacks hinders justice for the immigrants as the witnesses would be deported thus resulting in cases not further investigated (Monson Misago, 2009). The culture of impunity for the perpetrators of the attacks in further expressed by Landau and Misago (2009: 104). Because of the governing elites’ anti- immigrants’ sentiments, the country and the world, should then not be surprised when the Department of Home Affairs and Department of Home Affairs bureaucrats inhumanely treat immigrants, in particular African poor immigrants.

The manipulation of the township and informal settlement dwellers, more especial by the governing elites founded on scapegoat theory, refl ects the South African government attitude post-1994. The South Africa government is the best in blame shifting of its failures to bring change in the lives of the township and informal settlement dwellers. If South Africa government doesn’t blame white people for the misfortunes of the black people in townships and informal settlements, the South Africa government has to fi nd other peoples to blame for their failures to deliver service delivery and such peoples are invariable white people if not what the ruling party refer to coconuts (see Mlambo 2019, Mangcu,2008). Unfortunately, the immigrants, if not white people are not blamed, suffer the brunt for the failures of South Africa government to deliver services to township and informal settlement dwellers.

What needs to be done

The poor African immigrants’ attacks in South Africa is not a dilemma that can be resolved by South African government on its own. It can be resolved by the whole Southern Africa Development Community (Tirivangasi at el, 2015) and the continent as the whole. Poor governance in the continent fuel the emigration and the people who bear the brunt of the poor governance is not the elite, rather- it is the political society. The unfortunate phenomenon of emigration in the continent is that the political elite, when the dire consequences of immigration- such as attacks -the political elites are invariable the fi rst people to retort Pan Africanist slogans, yet their behaviour are in sharp contrast to the Pan Africanism ethos. If the attacks on poor immigrants manifest itself in the diaspora, self-entitlement is ever revoked that the GN developed because of the exploitation of Africa and slavery. Inasmuch geo-trade continues to be asymmetrical thus comparative favours global North, the African elites are, likewise the GN, enemies for the development of Africa through looting of state coffers and undemocratic government. For instance, in Southern Africa, emigration is not holistically economic motivated, rather- it is politically motivated.

South Africa, because of its better economic opportunities in the continent, unfortunately witnessed a plethora of immigrants migrating to the country that pitted them against the local elites and governing elites. Both the local elites and the governing elites manipulates the hoi polloi which culminates in localised physical confrontation which subsequently spread across the country townships and informal settlements. The confrontations are motivated by crumbs that falls from the capitalists’ tables and the governing elite (see earlier discussion cited Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the scapegoat theory).

There is a salient need for the institutionalisation of state apparatus in the country to enforce law without favour and the rule of law to fi nd expression. This would mean that all those who had incited the attacks must face law and be held accountable for their reckless speech despite of the leadership positions they occupy (see earlier discussion). Furthermore, Mamdani (see earlier discussion) assertions debunked the notion of borderless pre-colonial Africa therefore borders are to be protected. The protection of the borders, however, should not erode the spirit of ubuntu, viz, emigrants from warzones infested states are to be offered refugee status. Economic emigrants and political emigrants need to be cognisant its them only who can be the agents of change in their respective countries therefore for them to fl ee from fi xing their domestic political-economic and social conditions is not a solution.

Therefore, because of the widespread of the attacks on poor African immigrants by their fellow poor black Africans in the townships and informal settlements, the general wisdom concludes its xenophobic attacks albeit having studied the nuances of the attacks. However, enable by the literature review on the attacks on poor African immigrants, this paper argued that xenophobia terminology to understand the attacks in South Africa reaches its limitations as race, class and the notion of legality is discarded of the attacked immigrants.


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