University of Zambia academic Dr Sishuwa Sishuwa says the savagery physical violence that regularly flares up against foreign nationals in South Africa is a result of extreme levels of inequality, mass poverty and unemployment.

Giving a keynote speech in Cape Town, Wednesday, to mark Africa Freedom Week celebrations at the University of Cape Town’s Distinguished Speakers Programme (DSP) on the topic “Africa Day in the Age of Xenophobia: Another Perspective”, Dr Sishuwa dismissed the narrative that the attacks reflected South Africans’ lack of gratitude for the sacrifices that other African countries made towards the liberation of their country.

“The argument that South Africans who attack foreign nationals from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia and other African countries that helped South Africa attain majority rule are ungrateful rests on psychological explanations and is problematic for two reasons. First, it effectively approves physical violence against Africans from those countries that contributed nothing to the liberation of South Africa. It presupposes that the problem only occurs when these attacks are directed against Africans from countries that helped South Africa attain majority rule. No, the attacks are unacceptable regardless of those on the receiving end,” Dr Sishuwa said.

“Second, the argument that South Africans who attack foreign nationals from African countries are paying with ingratitude the sacrifices made by their African brothers and sisters overlooks the point that those who helped South Africa to attain majority rule did not do so out of expectations of rewards or benefits once the country was free. Leaders like Zambia’s founding president Kenneth Kaunda, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and others in the region were motivated by selfless convictions and the need to offer solidarity to a sister country that was still under the yoke of apartheid. If an action is motivated by the expectations of an equal or greater reward, it can hardly be considered a selfless one. Would these violent physical attacks have been legitimate if South Africa had offered reparations or development aid to these countries as a thank you?”

He said instead of addressing the symptoms, South Africa and other African countries should attend to the drivers of xenophobia.

“The attacks are a result of structural issues, exemplified by a heap of undiluted poverty, mass unemployment and extreme inequalities within the South African society, the SADC region and across the African continent. This is not a justification for their occurrence, but helps explain why they occur. Statistics show that South Africa, for instance, is the most unequal country on earth. It is characterised by uneven development between one part of the country, mainly those inhabited by blacks, and another, mainly the urban suburbs. People are flocking from rural areas to urban slums, which sustain extreme forms of inequality. Official figures also show that unemployment stands at 26 per cent. Of this figure, only about seven percent are white South Africans. The result is mass poverty. Less jobs also means that the level of taxation is so low that the State cannot use it to sufficiently police poverty. It is under this pungent mixture of glaring inequalities, rampant unemployment and dehumanising poverty, all with a predominantly black face, that the physical violence meted by black South Africans against foreign nationals from Africa occurs, as part of the vicious struggle to survive,” he said.

“The native is struggling for survival, and you throw into the communities where the African lives another layer of people who we say must be protected because they are coming from countries that helped free South Africa? I am saying for a more sustainable solution, let us tackle the glaring levels of inequality and significantly reduce poverty and unemployment. The xenophobia attacks are simply symptomatic of these structural problems and the failure by the State to positively impact on the aspirations of many .”

He proposed free movement of people across the region as a possible solution that could help lessen the attacks.

“In addition to fostering even development, we should also consider implementing the policy on free movement of people across the region. What stops us from opening our borders is fear and the desire to preserve our differences. We must understand the modern world as a shifting world of immigrants in search of sites for survival. Migrants are coming and we must come to terms with it. The whites who arrived in South Africa from Europe and elsewhere in the 1600s or soon after were fleeing from impoverishment and other forms of deprivation. Cecil Rhodes, for example, only brought his poor health and his ideas to South Africa, in search of survival and yet he made it. No one burnt or stabbed him or those that came before or after him on grounds of their poverty or place of origin. The Africans from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Nigeria and elsewhere are following that long-trodden route or pattern, one that partly defines South Africa as a land of immigrants,” Dr Sishuwa said.

“Wherever we are in Africa, we should get used to the idea that the immigrants are coming. The earth is our ecosystem. Ecologically, all races can live anywhere on Earth. I see no reason why I should be stuck in Maputo when I can go to Lusaka and make it. So let us blow away the borders that separate us and allow free movement of people, starting at regional level, SADC. The EU has already moved in this direction and there are several case studies that show the economic benefits that accrue to migrants’ countries of origin and the ones that host them. I know that there are those who will say ‘But if we open borders to everyone, then the whole Democratic Republic of Congo would move into South Africa’. This assumption proceeds from the erroneous assumption that some countries have only poor people to offer and no resources.”

Dr Sishuwa also said South Africa is being made to pay for the failures of leadership in other African countries.

“In a sense, South Africa is paying for the failures of leadership and policies of other African countries. Why do would citizens of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Nigeria or indeed any other African country prefer to be poor in the slums of Kwazulu Natal or Alex, and risk being beaten or killed than stay in Harare, Lusaka, Maputo, Lilongwe, or Lagos? It is because they feel that they have reached a dead end in their countries, that their national political leaders have failed them,” said Sishuwa.

“It is that sense of hopelessness and despair that drives the energetic segment of the population, including those without formal qualifications and the requisite papers, to escape from their territorial prions of destitution in search of a better life. Ineffective or incompetent leaders in the SADC region are putting a considerable strain on South Africa. The leaders of these countries where those on the receiving end of these barbaric attacks hail from must engage in critical self-examination before they hypocritically condemn South Africa for failing to take care of their citizens who ran away from such countries precisely because of the tragic failures of those who are complaining. One country cannot meet the aspirations and failed dreams of an entire continent.”