Always latent, xenophobic tensions in South Africa are once again threatening to boil to the surface.

The flames of this latest wave appear to be fanned by opportunistic actors seeking to exploit the current confluence of economic and political uncertainty, against the backdrop of the multiple traumas inflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the most concerning developments in this regard has been the grouping mobilising around Operation Dudula, which took to the streets of Soweto last week to harass and intimidate foreign nationals in the area.

Equally concerning has been the lack of unequivocal condemnation for their acts from some of the country’s leading political parties. Where criticism has been levelled it has been muted, apparently in fear of seeming out of touch of what appears to be broad public sentiment.

It is important that we ask how prevalent anti-immigration attitudes are among South Africans. What exactly are these sentiments and how entrenched are they? Although it is difficult to precisely define the extent of xenophobic sentiments among the population, it is clear from multiple public opinion surveys that many South Africans do not trust foreign nationals.

The South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB), a nationally representative survey conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, found that foreign nationals from other African countries were the least trusted group among South Africans in 2021. More than half of all respondents said they either trust foreign nationals not very much or not at all.

The SARB survey also showed that roughly one in three South Africans would be likely to prevent foreigners from moving into their neighborhoods and accessing jobs or services. Public opinion surveys indicate that although most South Africans would not object to the presence of foreign nationals in their area, a sizable minority would be willing to take action to prevent integration.

The mass public violence across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July last year viscerally demonstrated that the actions of a powerful minority can have devastating consequences. While there is evidence of historic prejudice against migrants from the rest of the continent, but the immediate tensions seem to arise from competition over increasingly scarce opportunities and resources in a deteriorating economy.

In light of the dangers that xenophobia poses to social cohesion, it is pertinent that we take stock of what the basis is for these sentiments. Why are South African politicians so reluctant in taking a clear stand against the proliferation of xenophobic narratives and actions?

Potential for conflict

Although xenophobic violence under these circumstance is not inevitable, it is critical that we recognise that the potential for conflict is high when popular prejudice overlays the lived reality of economic marginalisation.

Over the past decade, the sluggish economy has given little indication that there are any short- or medium-term prospects for substantive growth. The visible consequence has been soaring unemployment, setbacks on poverty reduction and deepening inequality. The less visible consequence has been an erosion on agency that has in turn left many South Africans feeling excluded, disenfranchised and living in a state of perennial anxiety.

Despite various public programmes designed to prevent South Africans from slipping further towards the edges of economic inclusion, the pressure on the state to support citizens far exceeds its capacity to meaningfully and sustainably improve the lives of its people.

Although cash grants and other assistance packages have been a critical lifeline for many, these have been insufficient to reduce poverty. The extent to which South Africans experience material deprivation is evidenced by the latest Afrobarometer survey. In 2021, not only did two-thirds of South Africans say that the state of the national economy is bad, but the same number also indicated that they have had to go without income at least once in the last year while half indicated going without water, food and cooking fuel.

Today, households and businesses are also feeling the weight of inflation, inconsistent electricity supply and other shocks like rising oil prices.

It is under these conditions that an intensifying competition for scarce resources and opportunities is unfolding. For example, in a 2018 Afrobarometer survey half of respondents agreed that the government should not allow foreigners to work in South Africa because they take jobs and benefits away from South Africans. There is a perception among many South Africans, emboldened by anti-immigrant rhetoric, that there is not enough to go around.

Enter opportunistic politics

Equally, there is a growing perception that neither the country’s public institutions, nor their political parties, are able to address the origins of these circumstances. As a result, the practice of scapegoating foreign workers for these failures is increasingly being mainstreamed , with new job reservation policies, designed to strictly limit opportunities for foreign nationals, currently being mooted in the upper echelons of power.

While all sovereign countries have the right to ensure that their citizens are prioritised in their respective labour markets, these should be based on sound economic considerations and the consistent application of relevant principles. They should not feed off and exploit vulnerabilities that have the potential to tear a country apart.

The low levels of condemnation, doublespeak, and in some instances silence within our current political discourse seems to suggest that we are dangerously leaning towards the latter. Votes in the short term appear to be more important than the preservation of stability in the long term. We should expect more of the custodians of our democratic, human rights-based, constitutional system.

Nation-building should not come at the expense of inclusion

The drivers of migration are unlikely to let up in the near future. As Africans migrate to seek out safety and opportunity, additional strain on finite resources and infrastructure poses a continued risk of violent xenophobic action in different parts of the continent, but particularly so in Southern Africa. Without hope of immediate economic relief and institutional reform, quelling xenophobic attitudes might have to rely on a less tangible cornerstone of social cohesion.

A good place to start is recentring the foundational principle of the Freedom Charter and the Constitution: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”. Building a nation stretches beyond citizenship. It is crucial that even in the face of hardship, the values of the South African identity are encompassing of acceptance, tolerance and generosity.

While civil society has a critical role to play in reinstating values central to a socially cohesive society, these efforts must be complemented by political leaders espousing the principles of our Freedom Charter and Constitution.

Jaynisha Patel and Mikhail Moosa

Jaynisha Patel is the project leader for inclusive economies at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation Mikhail Moosa is the project leader for the South African Reconciliation Barometer at the IJR.
This article was first published in the Mail & Guardian.