Africa Is Not Immune to the Rising Tide of Xenophobia
Xenophobic politics aren’t just on the rise in the West, but in African countries like South Africa. And the culprit is similar: a ruling elite that refuses to address rapacious economic inequality and instead fans the flame of anti-foreign resentment.
In South Africa there seems to be a seasonal shift: discussions around Zimbabwe and Lesotho workers permits are being hosted by cabinet; laws and administration around visa renewals and working permits have been changed in the last few months; members of the governing party, the African National Congress, are asking for border reinforcement and openly associating foreigner activities in the country with insecurity as opposed to economic growth. Finally, news highlights in South Africa now include scenes of burnt shacks, palpable fear, and public protests as angry mobs frantically search for undocumented foreigners. To fully understand why South Africa and its democratic institutions are entering a nationalist winter, a snippet of African political history is helpful.
Naturally, xenophobia is not a new phenomenon for the rainbow nation; xenophobic violence dates back to 2008 and has already been largely commented on through an array of media platforms. However, what seems to be surfacing is a new form of institutionalized xenophobia rising from within the state. A few years ago, no political entrepreneurs had seriously taken ownership of the xenophobic agenda. The issue mainly emerged from an impoverished population that focused their efforts on looting local spaza shops typically owned by foreigners from other African countries, as opposed to retail giants owned by white South African capital (which was what happened during the July riots of 2021).
Elsewhere on the continent, other historical examples of such narrow nationalism abound. In 1989, in the middle of a long economic crisis and after many marches contesting his power, president Abdou Diouf of Senegal signed a decree to expel approximately 170,000 Mauritanians. At that point, the Parti Socialist Senegalais of Léopold Sédar Senghor had been in power since independence in 1960, and Diouf was Senghor’s successor. President Diouf did what many had done before him in response to an economic meltdown: blame the “aliens” and “foreigners” in a clumsy attempt to gain back political legitimacy without addressing the inequities of a rapacious neoliberal economic order.
In 1968, only two years after toppling the Ghanaian father of independence and pan-African hero, Kwame Nkrumah, Ghanaian prime minister Kofi Busia fell into the same trap: blaming foreigners, rather than the national bourgeoisie for the country’s economic downfall. In 1968, Legislative Instrument 553 decreed that all non-Ghanaians had to have a work permit before they could act as employer, self-employed person, or employees. A Compliance Order was issued in the same year giving all foreigners without residence permits two weeks to obtain them or leave the country. Naturally, very few Africans had the necessary papers, and could not even claim it from their institutionally weak embassy. The police and the army were sent to search for and arrest all foreign nationals lacking papers. Ghanaians were encouraged to believe that the departure of the “aliens” would solve all the country’s economic problems. Most of them were Nigerian and ended up coming back in the middle of the Biafra civil war.
Busia’s fall from power was even faster than Diouf ’s in Senegal. It took Ghanaians only a few months to realize they had been played and he was forced into exile in England the following year. The rise of xenophobic politics from within the state itself did not bring back economic growth in the country. Instead, inflation skyrocketed and food was scarce. Unable to address these economic challenges and faced with rising popular anger, the state responded militarily to discipline its own citizens, forcing millions of Ghanaian youth to leave the country on the very same roads that were once used to expel foreign nationals.
Millions of them arrived in Nigeria, where a petroleum-driven economy was booming. As petrol prices began to rise, Nigeria had nationalized the industry and attained a production level of more than two million barrels of crude oil a day. By 1982, the oil industries had generated more than US$101 billion for the country’s elites. Not only were there West Africans entering Nigeria, but there was an influx of people from rural areas migrating to the cities. Life was good. However, due to a recession in the large petroleum consumer market in the early 1980s, the economic boom in Nigeria waned significantly. President Shehu Shagari, then, found himself in the same position as his Ghanaian counterpart a few years before. The state under his leadership responded similarly, and in 1982, began expelling nonnationals, criminalizing their activities and blaming them for the failing economy. Most businesses they owned crumbled and the few that survived were shared within power circles and extended to the party patronage. Like in Ghana and Senegal, it did not make the economic situation better for all, but rather reinforced a kleptocratic elite.
By the time the Nigerian national election of 1983 came about, Shagari and the policemen in charge of the “Ghana Must Go” operation directed their violence toward impoverished Nigerian citizens demanding change where none was forthcoming after the expulsion of foreign nationals. For the Nigerian governing elite, institutionalizing xenophobia was a step to reinforce the state’s capacity to discipline the masses, while at the same time politically trying to gain back legitimacy. Less than nine months after Shagari was kicked out of power, he had to flee the country like Kofi Busia. A year later, then military ruler General Muhammdu Buhari (who is now Nigeria’s incumbent president), announced another round of expulsions, this time, of all foreigners, including those with residence permits. About seven hundred thousand people were forced out of the country.
Returning to present-day South Africa, after twenty-nine years of neoliberal failure, xenophobia appears a satisfying answer for a national bourgeoisie that has thus far avoided redistributing sufficient wealth to the majority of South Africans, who remain impoverished and exploited. South African exceptionalism is a myth; we are not alone in facing the morbid symptoms of postcolonial decay, where national elites, often erstwhile liberators, lack political imagination.
Institutionalized xenophobia offers false narratives of better days to come. Indeed, African political history teaches us that for a short period of time the national elite is safe, being seen as “doing its job” for the people, but the chimera won’t last. If and when foreigners leave, the situation will not improve. People’s anger will be redirected to the national elite, as demonstrated in Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal.