Xenophobic attack in South Africa

Opinion by Mina Shah
Feb. 27, 2017, 12:26 a.m.

A few weeks ago, I published a column about the importance of protests around the world and cited the co-incidence of the protests as particularly important to this historical moment. However, coinciding events are not just important to note when they are positive. We must take note of negative events that happen in the same period relative to one another, as well. This is especially the case when the historical context surrounding those negative events might warn of violence to come. Thus, the fact that there has been a resurgence of xenophobic violence in South Africa as of late ought to deeply trouble us all.

In 2007, the frustration of South African nationals with the ANC government with regard to the government’s limited job provision came to a head. Various foreign nationals (including Nigerians, Somalis, Sudanese and Rwandans) were attacked because of the perception that they were taking jobs from South Africans as the result of their cheaper labor. Upwards of 60 people were killed in the violence, and aggressors employed apartheid-era methods of killing.

Because of this particular context within South Africa, the recent attacks on Nigerians by South African nationals is terrifying. We know that this kind of anger and frustration paired with violence can lead to killings and mob justice very quickly. This is detrimental to the health of communities and does nothing to solve the underlying economic grievances: that there are not enough jobs or housing units in South Africa.

In addition to the history of xenophobia in South Africa specifically, the fact that xenophobia seems to be on the rise in the world adds another layer of concern. At least, it certainly should. One of the signs of the potential for localized violence to escalate and become more widespread, even to the point of mass atrocity, is violence and/or political unrest in areas surrounding the area in which the violence is most prevalent.

In an era in which globalization has, in some ways, brought faraway places in the world much closer together, similar kinds of violence cropping up around the world might even be considered a warning sign. The xenophobia that we currently see in South Africa is intimately connected with similar sentiments in France, Britain and the U.S. at present. This is because the xenophobia in each of these areas is destructive for the communities and people that it impacts. In the same way that protests for equal rights and justice can set a precedent around the world, so can incidences of violently expressed xenophobia.

If we can agree these attacks on Nigerians in South Africa are a problem, the next question to pose ourselves is: What do we do about this? Direct intervention? Sanctions? Leveraging our embassy to influence U.S. and allied businesses to create working cultures of inclusivity?

And within that question of what we can do, who is “we”? “We” as individuals? “We” as the greater Stanford community? As California? As the U.S.?

The most effective policy interventions are likely at the national level. The maximum impact that the U.S. can have in this situation is by leveraging contacts in South Africa: incentivizing U.S. businesses in the region to create more jobs and to encourage peaceful coexistence and cultures of inclusivity in the workplace.

It is true that the most effective interventions might come at a national-international connection level. However, we can also, as individuals and as a community, take stands against xenophobia in our own backyard to set an example for other communities in the U.S., which could snowball into having a global impact. It is also possible for us as individuals to contact our congresspeople in order to encourage them to take a more active stance in their professional careers for inclusivity and against xenophobia.

There are surely some people who will say something to the likes of the following: “The U.S. is in its own crisis moment. We need to focus on ourselves before worrying about what is going on in the rest of the world.”

To that, I respond: Yes, we are in our own crisis moment. Things are not going well in the U.S. right now. That being said, this does not give us an excuse to turn completely inwards. Our success as a nation is intimately tied to the success of other nations. If we want to fix our own problems, a more effective way to this might be to work collaboratively with other nations facing similar issues.


Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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