South Africa’s Sad Export

The past week has added more entries to the infamous gallery of human injustices resulting from perceived grievances. In what appears to be a spontaneous reaction, irate mobs in South Africa turned their ill-advised fury to foreigners in that country. This is similar to the time when Jews were blamed for the bubonic plague, illustrating a common human trait of blaming others for problems.

Media reports suggest that the xenophobic attacks were triggered by comments made by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini. He is reported to have said that foreigners should pack and go (remember, “Ghana must go”?) because apparently, whatever problems being faced by South Africans is caused by foreigners. South Africans are so angelic, that the only stains in their country are a direct result of having uninvited foreigners in their midst.

Influential public figures are usually advised to speak and act with tact and decorum, as their influence could easily trigger events that spin out of control. This King apparently never took this advice to heart. After his statement, disgruntled South Africans saw an opportunity to vent their frustrations. The boiling point had reached; the pot could no longer contain the steam. His words provided an outlet. Mobs attacked (and are still attacking) foreigners, and businesses owned by foreigners.

From the perspective of the South Africans, one can understand their frustrations. The unemployment level hovers around 25%— a high figure for a country with the second largest economy in Africa. The South Africans have missed the road to a solution, and instead have chosen to blame foreigners for the unemployment level and the crime rate. Years of apartheid rule appear to have entrenched a “we-against-them” mind-set in many South Africans. This time, foreigners are “them”.

A look at major cosmopolitan cities across the world shows that foreigners actually contribute positively to their host cities or communities. This is one reason why many countries create policies to attract skilled and business-savvy foreigners. For example, apart from the Green Card Visa Lottery scheme, the United States also has the H1B1 visa scheme for skilled persons, and another scheme to attract individuals who are ready to invest a certain amount in the country. The US and other countries are not giving these visas because they are Santa Claus. Rather, it is a testament of the value they have seen from having foreigners in their midst.

The grouse by many South Africans about foreigners exacerbating unemployment appears myopic. So far, they have not brought any logical proof that foreigners “steal” their jobs. Do foreigners accept much lower pay than native South Africans do? If not, then the question would be whether those foreigners are better skilled. If the problem is a skills disadvantage, then the natives should rather focus their energies on gaining skills that would give them an edge over foreigners.

Attacking foreign-owned businesses is a sure sign of dementia. Do those businesses employ only foreigners? Do they evade taxes? Do they destroy the environment? Do they cater only to foreigners? Do they contribute nothing to the economy? If the answers to these questions are negative, then the mob needs to sit down and revaluate their actions. How can they say foreigners cause unemployment, yet they attack foreign businesses that surely create jobs? This is a classic case of shooting one’s self in the foot.

The xenophobic violence has triggered responses from different countries, especially, countries whose citizens are affected. The past week has featured the usual condemnation statements, calling of ambassadors, and plans to repatriate a country’s nationals living in South Africa. All these responses are okay. The response that bothers me is the one that fights stupidity with a dose of a different kind of stupidity.

In Nigeria, some persons have called for a boycott of South African-owned businesses. These persons are so angered by the foolish display in South Africa, that they feel the best way to fight back is to attack the pockets of South Africans. It is a very brilliant war strategy. The only problem is that those pockets contain funds belonging to both South Africans and Nigerians. Drilling a hole in them would surely affect some South Africans (some of whom may have no hand whatsoever in the violence), but it would also surely affect millions of Nigerians either directly or indirectly.

Large companies such as MTN, DSTV, Shoprite, and others, employ thousands of Nigerians directly and indirectly through other service companies. These companies also provide essential services. Imagine the productivity loss if MTN’s network were to be down for 24 hours. There is GLO and other networks, but many Nigerians use MTN, so the effect would be widespread. Alternatively, imagine the ubiquitous DSTV service being out for a whole day. There is hardly any other operator with a large enough market share to replace DSTV.

Xenophobia would not be conquered through knee-jerk reactions. The best form of action is to put pressure on the South African government through diplomatic channels. The responsibility to protect foreigners lies with that government. It has to stop the violence by its citizens, and ensure that offenders are brought to book to the full extent of the law, not a useless slap on the wrist. Then it needs to enlighten its citizens about the folly of xenophobia. Public enlightenment is the only thing that can change the wrongly entrenched view about foreigners. At the same time, the SA government has to address the complaints that led to this needless outburst. If this were not done, another cycle of xenophobic attacks would come again. After all, this is not the first time.

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