Xenophobia is not just a South African problem

South Africa - Cape Town - 9 October 2019 - Hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers spent another night in the Waldorf Arcade where the Cape Town offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are situated. They are accusing the organisation of failing to protect them from xenophobia, failing to help get their documents from Home Affairs as well as failing to help them with resettlement in other countries. Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency(ANA)

Xenophobia is not a uniquely South African problem. Africa suffers from a broader plague of intolerance, misplaced nationalism and xenophobia which must be addressed to move the continent forward. There are countless examples of instances where we have blamed some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, often immigrants, for our economic challenges. 

In September 2019, South Africa held a mirror for all of us to look into, offering us an opportunity to be introspective. By refusing to look into this mirror and making xenophobia a South African issue alone, we avoid the opportunity for collective improvement and unity. The first week of September 2019 was a harrowing one. When the news of the xenophobic attacks in South Africa broke out, I received a number of messages from people on my social media platforms asking me why I wasn’t commenting publicly on the issue. 

I am a vocal champion of the African narrative and, I suppose, this would have been as good a time as any to say something to condemn what was happening in the country. I felt that I would be stating the obvious. Of course, it is wrong to use violence against anybody, including so-called foreigners. It goes without saying that anyone who justifies xenophobia, as many socio-economic reasons as there may be for South Africans’ frustrations with the challenges in their country, is justifying the utterly unacceptable. However, it would be hypocritical and short-sighted to drive the narrative that the “xenophobic” label belongs to South Africa alone.

I clearly remember when my family immigrated to South Africa after the political tensions between the Congolese and Rwandans exploded in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Even before that, as my mother’s generation of Rwandans were coming of age in what was then known as Zaire, to be Rwandan was synonemous to being inferior and brought with it the little indignities that foreigners have to live with every day, which they end up normalising even in their own minds. They have often never known anything else. Seeing my family pack up and flee to Johannesburg from Kinshasa, where I was born and spent a great part of my childhood, was confusing for me- the tensions between Rwandans and Congolese people left me conflicted internally because my mother is Rwandan and my father is Congolese.

Fast forward to 2015 and I followed with great amusement when, in 2015, giant fashion brand Louis Vuitton launched the big, square, checked bags that came in blue and red which my grandmother used to take to the market when I was a little girl. These bags are fraught with a dark history and are popularly referred to as “Ghana Must Go” bags. The name was coined when Nigeria expelled two million undocumented West African migrants, half of whom were from Ghana. 

Those bags became the symbol of exclusion and intolerance. The rhetoric was the same as the one we have heard recently in South Africa- the Nigerian economy was failing following the oil crash, and the country turned inwards, blaming African migrants, especially Ghanaians. They claimed that Ghanaians had taken all the jobs and brought crime to the country. An eerily familiar narrative. Others argue that “Ghana Must Go” was retaliation from the 1960s when Nigerians were expelled from Ghana en masse following, again, economic depression.

In August 2019, it was reported that the Central African nation of Equatorial Guinea has put in place plans to erect a wall along its 183km-long border with Cameroon to keep Cameroonians out following a history of border friction between the two countries. Tensions have been rising between the central African neighbours since Equatorial Guinea discovered oil in the 1990s. Moves such as these are heavily taxing on any progress we make as Africans. Why are we so quick to think fellow Africans will deplete our resources? Where is this scarcity mentality coming from?

Painting South Africa and its people as xenophobes is dangerous to the aspirations of the entire continent. As we grapple with the practicalities of initiatives such as the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCTA) and one African passport, we must take collective responsibility for the things that affect us as a continent, both positively and negatively. The positive political, economic and social changes that have taken place on the continent lately have been the result of a common effort and vision for a better Africa. 

We are driven by our historical experiences of what works and what doesn’t, fatigue for mediocrity and a deep-seated need to see change happen. We must exert the same energy in taking responsibility for and speaking about the negative things that continue to plague Africa, including intolerance of “the other”. To say that South Africans are xenophobic without having the larger continental debate exonerates the rest of us from taking a self-critical and introspective approach which acknowledges what we have historically done or are currently doing to immigrants in our own countries. This stands in the way of the development of our continent.

Lastly, the continued negative narrative about South Africa has serious implications for the country’s economy and its social fabric. Africa simply cannot afford to have a “broken” South Africa. We cannot have a South Africa which is not thriving. As a key economic power on the continent, South Africa plays a pivotal role in the Africa we would all like to see emerge. Ostracizing narratives about the country will only hurt us all. We need to be mindful of the stories we tell.


Mimi Kalinda is the ACG Group CEO and Co-Founder. She is a visionary and leader in the field of PR and communications – both in Africa and globally. Mimi has accumulated a wealth of strategic media experience across different industries, specialties and continents.