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Anti-Foreigner Tension Grips South Africa


South Africa's anti-immigrant violence that claimed more than 60 lives and left thousands homeless last month has subsided, although many foreigners are afraid to return to their homes. And some analysts warn that the country risks further instability unless the root causes of the violence are addressed. What are the socio-economic drivers behind South Africa's anti-foreigner attacks?

Recent violence in Johannesburg, and other cities and provinces was a backlash against foreigners who allegedly deprived South Africans of jobs and housing. The South African government has condemned the attacks and set up camps for thousands of displaced foreigners, pending their return to their communities or homelands.

South Africa expert Briggs Bomba of the Washington-based advocacy group Africa Action says immigrants, who typically take on low-paying jobs, have become scapegoats for South Africa's marginalized populations.

"The socio-economic conditions in South Africa breed conflict amongst groups that are competing for a place on the margins of that society. More than 60 percent of South Africans are either unemployed or living on less than 500 Rands a month [i.e., about $63.00]. You also have a serious collapse in social services delivery. And when the moment comes, foreigners become easy scapegoats," says Bomba. "So the anger is actually directed toward the South African government for failing to resolve these issues. This is what people had expected to be resolved in the post-apartheid era."

Few Jobs, Poor Education

The South African government dismisses criticism that it has not provided adequate services to its poorest people and blames the violence on criminals. But many analysts say anger has been seething for years over the lack of basic services and job opportunities.

David Wiley, Director of Michigan State University's African Studies Center, says the country's high unemployment rate is at the heart of the unrest.

"Unemployment is very, very high in South Africa -- at least officially at 40 percent and, in fact, higher than that simply because there has not been a growth in jobs as the South African economy has become more efficient and more productive. It has not led to the increase of jobs that [former President] Nelson Mandela and the ANC [i.e., the African National Congress party] government had hoped would be the case when they came to power in 1994," says Wiley. "And a new calculation has been released, which makes the assertion that South Africa has the most unequal economy between the rich and the poor of any country in the world."

According to a recent survey released by Statistics South Africa, the country's national statistical organization, ten percent of the population earned more than 50 percent of the nation's income last year, while the poorest 40 percent of South Africans earned less than seven percent of national income.

Sociologist David Wiley says much of that inequality is a product of apartheid era policies that limited education for black South Africans. As a result, he says many South African companies look for qualified labor from countries like Zimbabwe.

"Now with the deterioration of the situation in Zimbabwe and with the lack of rapid development in other countries such as in Mozambique, Zambia, Nigeria and even the rest of the continent, there has been a flood into the country [i.e., South Africa], especially from Zimbabwe, of illegal immigrants who then have been very active in the informal economy and are offering to work for less because they are foreigners. They are not unionized and do not make the demands for worker rights that are made by South African workers."

The Zimbabwe Factor

The South African government routinely repatriates illegal immigrants, although most of them return. Of particular concern to South Africans are millions of Zimbabweans who have fled their country's political and economic turmoil and taken refuge in South Africa.

Scott Taylor, Director of the African Studies Program at Georgetown University, says recent anti-immigrant violence is closely linked to South African President Thabo Mbeki's immigration policies toward neighboring Zimbabwe.

"This is intimately and integrally related to the Zimbabwe situation and his perceived inaction on Zimbabwe," says Taylor. "At least three-million of the estimated five-odd-million immigrants who are exiled and in South Africa are Zimbabweans. And so, this has been a flashpoint within South Africa and it's sort of the internalizing of the Zimbabwe problem, in a way. It's very much bound up in this whole anti-immigrant violence we've seen recently."

"No Quick Fix"

Taylor says sporadic xenophobic violence occurs throughout the continent -- not just in South Africa. But he says the problems that have fueled South Africa's recent turmoil have been festering for a long time and will take decades to resolve.

"The whole country is not burning. But these fundamental problems of income inequality, of poverty, unemployment -- there's no quick fix to that problem. They just can't create jobs fast enough, even in the context of relative economic growth that they have enjoyed in the last few years. They are structural problems that will be a burden for many years. These are structural problems that are difficult to eradicate."

But a failure to address these issues could put South Africa at a crossroads ahead of next year's general elections, says Peter Harris, Executive Director of the Florida-based USA/Africa Institute that sponsors development and intercontinental dialogue.

"The frustrations need to be addressed. Now, I don't know that there is a better political structure to deliver what the expectations of the population are. That to me is the critical thing. How much thought has been given to the political economy and how to address these things? I don't think this violence was a flash point. It has been a slow and deliberate move toward the violence," says Harris. "And I think that how this is handled is something that may either tax the current administration or present opportunities for a future administration to address the economic issues that are underlying the violence."

Some analysts fear that more attacks could destabilize South Africa and tarnish its image as an ethnically tolerant nation and a haven for investment and tourism.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.