08 May, 2015
Where From? Where To? Malawian Migrants in the Wake of the April 2015 Xenophobic Attacks
by Harvey C.C. Banda
Much has been written on the plight of immigrants from various African countries resident in South Africa following the eruption of xenophobic attacks in April 2015. These attacks started in Durban or Kwazulu-Natal area, especially following the so-called xenophobic sentiments expressed by King Goodwill Zwelithini. Barely a few days after such sentiments a horde of South Africans rushed out, attacking foreigners and looting their shops demanding that they “go back home”. This was sensationally described in the print media in South Africa as “looting for our king!”
In this article, firstly, I critique the response of both the host country, in this case, South Africa, and the sending country, that is, Malawi, following these attacks. I argue that the response by the South African government was rather slow, lukewarm and, above all, characterised by denialism about the existence of xenophobia. The same response was notable after the 2008 xenophobic attacks. On the part of the Malawi government, I am of the view that much as it came in promptly, it would have been much better to transform from reactive to proactive approaches in as far as the socio-economic plight of Malawians is concerned. The Malawi government sounded to be very caring in responding to the needs of Malawian migrants who fell victim to these attacks. But looking at the bigger picture, the question would be: Why not impart the promised skills to Malawians for use in their day to day lives in order to prevent the mass exodus of unskilled and semi-skilled Malawians in the first place?
Secondly, I examine the dilemma facing Malawian migrants displaced from South Africa by these attacks: should they go back to South Africa? If yes, such a move would be tantamount to risking their lives in case of fresh xenophobic waves. Or should they forget about South Africa and settle down in Malawi? But, practically, what will they be doing by way of earning a living? If it were that easy, would they have emigrated to the xenophobic, dangerous and, therefore, life-threatening South Africa in the first place?
Xenophobia has emerged as a deep-rooted social phenomenon in South Africa, especially after the collapse of Apartheid in 1994. Many South Africans seemed to have developed hatred against foreigners, blaming them for a host of ills in society: that they are bringers of diseases, especially HIV/AIDS; take way jobs and contribute to systemic low wages since they grab anything that comes their way; to such extreme claims that they snatch women from them. However, with time it has become apparent that this hatred carries a racial tag. These xenophobic attacks are particularly directed at foreigners of African origin, that is, fellow blacks from African countries. In addition, fellow South Africans from the north of the country, for example, the Shangaan and the Pedi, have also fell victim in the process simply because the Zulu largely rely on ‘street language tests’ and whoever fails to prove proficiency in isiZulu is deemed to be ‘a foreigner’.
Consequently, there is currently a hot debate among scholars and observers whether to characterise these attacks as xenophobia, afro-phobia or negro-phobia. According to Christina Steenkamp in a research paper titled Xenophobia in South Africa: What Does It Say About Trust? (2009), xenophobia refers to the irrational fear of the unknown or, specifically, as the fear or hatred of those with a different nationality. It relies heavily on the circulation of myths and stereotypes about foreigners. Hence the belief among South Africans that foreigners are a source of problems in their midst. Loren Landau in Exorcising the Demons Within: Xenophobia, Violence and Statecraft in Contemporary South Africa (2011) soberly notes that there is no single word referring to ‘foreigner’ in South Africa, rather a cross-section of such words as makwerekwere, magrigamba, amagoduka, amaVerkom, cockroach and mapoti.
In the wake of xenophobic attacks in April this year, the official South African government response was sluggish to say the least. It took long for the government to denounce the inhumane attacks on foreigners. The government was busy refuting that whatever was happening was xenophobia and that maintaining that South Africans are not xenophobic. How can you describe that as xenophobia? We have foreigners from around the globe; why are these attacks only directed at African nationals? These were some of the questions usually posed. In my view, whether this was xenophobia or afro-phobia is immaterial, what is crucial is prompt government response to save innocent lives and property. The government kept on assuring the public that the situation was under control and that there was no need, as yet, to involve the army. When the latter came in, unfortunately, thousands of foreigners had already been displaced from their homes.
It has been noted that the same was the response after the outbreak of violence in 2008. In fact, the official response was to deny that xenophobia was involved and, furthermore, that it existed at all! Thambo Mbeki is quoted as having argued that those who claimed that South Africans were xenophobic were themselves guilty of xenophobia. Clearly this is a classic element of denialism on the part of the government.
The Malawi government deserves appreciation for the way it assisted Malawian migrants stranded in South Africa as a result of the April xenophobic attacks. It hired buses which were at the disposal of all those who felt threatened and were willing to return home. In short, repatriation was at the discretion of those affected. In addition, the Malawi government promised to ensure that the repatriates settled down in Malawi and found something to do in order to earn a living. There were plans to introduce artisanal skills, for instance, tailoring and carpentry, for the direct benefit of these repatriates. This is a good and commendable initiative, indeed. However, if only this were to be the everyday approach of government in assisting the unskilled Malawians, we would not have been grappling with this problem of emigrants to South Africa!
The mixed reaction of Malawian migrants to the violent attacks in April shows clearly why labour migration from Malawi to neighbouring countries is a century-old phenomenon. Asked on the life after xenophobia in South Africa, migrants gave two contrasting responses. For some this was the end of the migration journey, arguing they were never going to come back to this ‘xenophobic country’. While for others, surprisingly, by going home they were simply taking a break and waiting for the violence to die down. “If I am to stay permanently at home, what will I be doing? There are no opportunities there”, some responded. In fact, it was reported that barely a few weeks after repatriation, a few Malawians were caught on a bus in Lilongwe amongst fresh emigrants, heading back to South Africa. This shows how deep-rooted the migration phenomenon is and the tough task that both the Malawi and South African governments have in permanently tackling this migration problem.
At this juncture, I am compelled to agree with the migration experts who are of the view that there is need for ‘migration governance’ in order to solve the migration challenges between sending and receiving countries, for example, in southern Africa. In this case, there is need for concerted efforts between the concerned governments regarding cooperation and coordination in migration issues. As for the Malawian migrants recently repatriated in the aftermath of the attacks in question, going by the sluggish and ambivalent response by the South African government, they are better off finding something to do back home: I am afraid to say the xenophobia monster had been bruised, but is not yet dead and buried. It is not good to take a risk in such a situation!