The attacks on immigrants are neither irrational nor spontaneous.

By Loren B. Landau
Mr. Landau is a professor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

JOHANNESBURG — The past few weeks in South Africa have been deadly. Citizens have turned on immigrants and other outsiders in a bout of violence and political theater that has killed at least 12 people and forced hundreds more from their homes.

While it is primarily immigrants on the run, 10 of those killed in this xenophobic melee were South African citizens. Two were trampled during a looting spree; others were attacked because they speak the wrong language or come from the wrong place. Such street-level violence has a long history, including attacks in 2008 that killed more than 60 people, most of them poor foreigners, and displaced more than 100,000.

This is not irrational violence or a spontaneous popular revolt. Nor is it simply “criminality,” as South Africa’s political leaders repeatedly claim. Rather, it is an act rooted in the failures of South Africa’s transformation. Continuing white privilege, world-leading levels of inequality and unemployment play a role. So too do erratic policing, cowardly political leaders and a disillusioned population.

And fundamentally it is a story of a ruling party unable and afraid to truly take on the responsibility of governing a deeply divided, angry country.

People last week outside the D H Williams Hall in Johannesburg’s Katlehong township where more than 500 people, mostly Mozambican nationals, are hosted after being forced from their homes by anti-foreigner violence.CreditMichele Spatari/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The turmoil of recent weeks may have resonance with anti-immigrant politics in Europe and the United States, but it carries a distinctly South African inflection. Not only does it stem from a different history, it is also more decentralized and violent. Where Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen stoke anti-immigrant sentiments from elevated national platforms, South Africa’s politicians have learned scapegoating from the streets.

This is a strategy tried, tested and tried again in diverse and unstable townships. It is the language of self-appointed leaders, business associations and entrepreneurs who exploit the country’s divides — between insiders and outsiders, South Africans and people primarily from other African nations, citizens and immigrants — for their own ends.

But classifying xenophobia as an immigration issue can do more harm than good. Heavy-handed anti-xenophobia campaigns risk increasing the visibility of foreign minorities and making their foreignness the issue. They also draw attention away from the reality that the most violent and fraught displays of xenophobia are often rooted in local — municipal, township or even neighborhood — battles for land, jobs and political office.

In South Africa’s case, the disconnection between citizens and politicians is key. Voter engagement has consistently declined over the past two decades, and those areas where violence occurs have some of the country’s lowest turnout rates. While many of these areas still support the ruling African National Congress, party participation is on the wane. Trust in neighbors is low. Trust in formal institutions is lower still.

In these hotly contested spaces political parties surrender to organizations and individuals that maintain order, often through violence. For example, in Mamelodi, a township just outside Pretoria, the Phomolong Residents’ Association acts as the de facto government, collecting fees and resolving disputes. Foreigners and migrants become targets: The association regularly steals from foreign-owned shops to finance its activities.

Local leaders incite hostility to migrants as a means of maintaining their authority. The pattern is widespread. After attacking and clearing out houses occupied by Zimbabweans, Jeff Ramohale, a leader in a township near Pretoria, handed them out to his followers. The informal settlement was named “Jeffsville.”

Similar examples are legion. In Rosettenville, a working-class neighborhood in southern Johannesburg, leaders organized attacks on Nigerians accused of drug use and prostitution. In a Durban township, a business group drove out and kidnapped approximately 50 foreigners. Such vigilantism does little to keep communities safe. Instead it provides the platform for building political careers — and intensifies xenophobia to the point of violence. Behind it all is a failure in government.

It is easy to condemn hatred and denialism. Indeed, African countries and the African Union have rebuked South Africa, threatening it with economic sanctions. Nigerian Afrobeat stars have canceled South African concerts and the Zambian soccer team withdrew in protest from a match. South African embassies and businesses have been attacked, and the ambassador to Nigeria was sternly summoned.

But condemnation is rarely an effective antidote. A campaign led by relatively privileged international and domestic organizations — or even migrants themselves — chastising xenophobic firebrands for their nationalistic sentiments is like pouring gasoline on a fire. After all, what serves their purposes more than being scolded by cosmopolitan elites for trying to protect “national values” and cultures? Such an approach may only harden cultural and political battle lines.

To be effective, interventions must address the incentives for xenophobic violence. This is especially critical in places where migrants and the citizens who live around them suffer the same forms of deprivation — which is the case across Africa and increasingly in neighborhoods in the Middle East, Latin America and the United States.

In South Africa, public awareness campaigns and scoldings are unlikely to work unless there is a serious effort to reshape how the townships are governed. As long as people continue to feel alienated and angry, xenophobic outbursts remain a threat. When the police and formal leaders are distant, unresponsive or part of the problem, people will find alternative solutions. Sometimes these forms of self-government are remarkably amicable and inclusive. Often they are violent. Countering them means stepping into spaces where politicians and the police fear to tread.

South Africa has taught the world many lessons about forgiveness and reconciliation. As violent anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies ripple through Europe, the United States and elsewhere, perhaps it can teach the world another lesson — about how local hatreds emerge, and how they can be stopped.

Loren B. Landau (@lorenlandau) is a professor at the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand and the editor of “Exorcising the Demons Within: Xenophobia, Violence and Statecraft in Contemporary South Africa.”

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Nigerians in South Africa
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We are about democracy, human rights, public opinion, political behavior, civil rights and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.

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