The past decade has seen worrying levels of anti-foreign hate speech and violence in South Africa. According to the African Center for Migration and Society, there have been more than 40 attacks on foreigners in eight of the past 13 years – and more in 2019 than any year in the past 10 years.
Julius Malema, the populist leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, has made a name for himself as a pan-Africanist voice preaching unity. But that era is over.
In this dangerous powder keg, Malema and the EFF have now joined the chorus of anti-black immigrants, especially demonizing those from countries like Zimbabwe. This includes visiting companies they suspect of hiring more foreigners than South Africans.
Although Malema and the EFF claim that their target is employers, their actions suggest otherwise. By identifying how many non-South Africans work at a certain restaurant, it draws attention to themselves, while fueling anti-immigrant rhetoric online, putting lives at risk.
Already there have been anti-immigrant marches, including one led by Operation Dudula’s Nhlanhla Lux, which removed traders from a Soweto bus station. In doing so, they misidentified some South Africans.
The Patriotic Alliance, which claims the Johannesburg City Council hires illegal aliens, spent a day harassing government employees. The scenes are reminiscent of colonial-era labor inspectors who routinely harassed Africans in settlements including South Africa, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe.
Malema’s reversal appears to have little to do with politics or economics, and appears to be driven by the fact that his political momentum has stalled. He now fears losing to parties like ActionSA, which has gained ground with its anti-immigrant agenda. Now he is selling the goals of the liberation struggle in a desperate attempt not to be outmaneuvered by rival political leaders.
In reality, immigrants from African countries are not the problem, which lies in a combination of high corruption, low productivity and elusive economic growth. Blaming immigrants will not solve the country’s problems, but may well trigger a new outbreak of xenophobic violence.
This article first appeared in The continent, the pan-African weekly designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.