South African politicians play up anti-foreigner sentiments to win votes
Experts warn xenophobic poll campaign targeting migrants may trigger violence in country
Some political parties in South Africa are using anti-immigrant rhetoric in the ongoing local government election campaigns which, experts warn, could fuel xenophobic violence in a country that previously witnessed similar attacks.
“We have noticed that some political parties have focused their campaigns on migrants, blaming them for poor service delivery, which is not true. It could only create tensions between migrants and locals,” Amir Sheikh, a spokesman for the African Diaspora Forum (ADF), a local migrant group, told Anadolu Agency Tuesday.
Leader of the Patriotic Alliance political party, Gayton Mckenzie, has spoken out openly against migrants and promised to get rid of illegal foreigners in all the metros his party will control.
“South Africans don’t have jobs. White businesses (in South Africa) have found new slaves in foreigners. They don’t want to hire our local people because they belong to unions,” Mckenzie claimed while delivering his party’s election campaign manifesto earlier this month broadcast on national television.
South Africans will be voting for local government officials on Nov. 1.
Illegal foreigners face deportation
Mckenzie also said all legal foreigners coming to work in South Africa should have a special skill and come with medical insurance so they do not benefit from free government hospitals.
“You can’t come and become a teacher here as we have enough teachers here. You can’t come here and be a nurse. You should come with a skill we don’t possess here in South Africa,” he told a crowd of supporters in Eldorado Park.
The ex-convict-turned politician took to Twitter and spewed out controversial statements such as claims that there are 10 million undocumented foreigners living in South Africa and asked his followers how can the country ever win the fight against crime. The known number of legal migrants in the country was 4.2 million in 2019.
Mckenzie also promised to arrest and deport all illegal foreigners in the cities and towns that his party will control if they win the polls.
“The first illegal foreigners that the Patriotic Alliance will arrest are the ones in hospitals. Illegal foreigners are overburdening our healthcare facilities. The poor have to share scarce hospital beds, social grants, and job opportunities with them,” he said.
ActionSA is another party that has spoken out strongly against the country’s immigration policy and also promised to clean the towns from illegal foreigners.
However, the African Diaspora Forum’s (ADF) Amir Sheikh believes most of the anti-immigrant sentiments raised by some of the politicians are just aimed at winning votes and creating tensions in communities.
“The issue of deporting illegal immigrants falls under the national government and directly under the Department of Home Affairs. So, it is not an issue of local government,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Electioneering through hate speech
Meanwhile, the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA), which advocates for the rights of migrants, in a statement Monday strongly condemned electioneering through hate speech and xenophobic utterances at the expense of non-nationals.
“We are tired of unsubstantiated statements that the removal of foreign nationals and migrants is the solution to all our problems in South Africa. This is totally unacceptable and undemocratic. It not only fuels social divisions but can also lead to xenophobic violence in our communities,” warned CoRMSA Executive Director Thifulufheli Sinthumule.
South Africa has witnessed several incidents of horrific violence against migrants. For instance, in May 2008, at least 62 people lost their lives and hundreds were injured as mobs targeted the homes and shops of migrants from Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Somalia among other countries.
Seven years later in 2015, at least seven people were killed in anti-foreigner violence that began in Durban but later spread to Johannesburg. The rioting was sparked by claims migrants had taken jobs from native South Africans, and they were responsible for a rise in crime and are a burden on social services. Similar anti-immigrant violence broke out in 2019.
The South African government condemned the attacks and warned those planning further xenophobic attacks of harsh punishments. In 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa condemned the violence targeting nationals of other African countries and Asia.
“There can be no justification for any South African to attack people from other countries,” he said.
Consequences of xenophobia
Mustafa Mheta, a senior research fellow and head of Africa desk at the Media Review Network, a Johannesburg-based think tank, believed that the politicians inciting hatred are playing cheap politics and are not being honest with themselves and the voters.
“It is just cheap politics that will not bring them any votes. Any serious observer will tell you that the problem to service delivery (in South Africa) is none other than ‘corruption’ which has become so endemic in our society,” Mheta told Anadolu Agency.
Asked what will happen if foreign nationals are attacked again in South Africa, he said: “If ever again, they rise up and start killing foreigners, the country will be in serious trouble. Much of the international goodwill earned during the time of former President Nelson Mandela is gone.”
He warned another attempt at xenophobia will trigger serious political and economic consequences for South Africa.