By Ross Anthony
The recent xenophobic attacks which have occurred in South Africa have consisted largely of local disenfranchised groups attacking those even more disenfranchised, namely foreign migrants of the poorest economic strata who often lack legal protection. While communities from the western world have remained largely unscathed, Asian communities fared less well. Instances of violence against Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were reported, as were instances of Chinese shops being looted. The Chinese in particular may become an increasingly vulnerable group, if such events continue to occur in the future.
In and out groups
The majority of South Africa’s Chinese community were not targeted during the xenophobic attacks as they are not directly in economic competition with the communities inciting the violence. The fact that those attacked were largely from the sub-Saharan African group is subsequent to the fact that they directly compete with locals, coupled with a frequently ambiguous legal status.
Asian communities have remained at the periphery of the violence, with the wide span of their economic status eschewing easy categorization. In the case of Chinese communities, numbers of mainland Chinese who have come to South Africa over the past decade or so engage in similar economic circumstances to those who are the greatest victims of xenophobic attacks – namely informal traders who sell competitive wares to the local African marketplace.
However, they set themselves apart in a number of ways. While Chinese run stores amongst communities where violence has occurred, they usually live outside of these areas, making them less susceptible to attack. Also, Chinese stores sell goods locals’ shops do not source (for example calculators, slippers, kettles and so on) and thus often do not compete as directly as, say, Somali traders do (cigarettes, crisps, bread) with local shop owners. Furthermore, within South Africa (although this cannot be said for a number of other Sub-Saharan counties), the Chinese do not engage significantly in the country’s labour market.
The Chinese community may also be conceptualised differently: earlier waves of Chinese tend to dwell within South Africa’s middle class strata and there are, of course, an elite number of Chinese who occupy technocratic positions as managers, CEOs and so forth – which is still not so much the case for most Sub-Saharan Africans.
Despite these factors, Chinese communities span nearly the entire economic ambit, from the very modest to the spectacularly wealthy, implying that at least certain elements of these communities are vulnerable if this kind of violence continues to flare up in the future.
However, targeting vulnerable Chinese communities who are perceived to be in direct economic competition with locals is only one way in which xenophobia of this kind may emerge. Another form it could take is in the sense that China is perceived as having too powerful an influence over South Africa. The anti-foreign rhetoric emanating from certain political quarters has included anti-Chinese sentiments, particularly from workers unions and opposition parties. Anti-Chinese riots in Zambia and more recently, the Congo, are both cases where opposition parties used the ruling parties close relations with China as a way of whipping up moral outrage. In many respects, South Africa presents the right conditions. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese have arrived within the past two decades with formal state relations underwriting billions of dollars of trade. There is always the possibility that an opportunistic opposition leader could whip-up anti-Chinese sentiment in the future.
If there is one thing that the current attacks have demonstrated, it is that commitment to South-South development and anti-hegemonic struggle - a rhetoric which underpins relations with countries such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique – is not sufficient to prevent targeting of foreign nationals. This is the same state-to-state rhetoric which cements South Africa-China foreign relations.
Nevertheless, while political destabilisation of the relationship might serve the interests of opposition figures, whoever takes the political helm will still have to deal with the massive economic reality of China. This is what former president of Zambia, Michael Sata discovered after taking the presidency after previously running on an anti-China ticket.
A precarious future?
The recent attacks highlight the huge problems which South Africa faces as well as its commitment to multiculturalism. Some of the key causes are structural, such as local unemployment and inequality, which fuels resentment. At the level of political leadership, the government also needs to reign in voices that blame South Africa’s economic woes on foreign nationals.
If future violence entailed the targeting of immigrants from countries with more robust political and economic relations with South Africa, the consequences would have far greater incentives for the government to act. Hopefully, it will not take such an unpleasant turn of events to motivate the government to act effectively.
Ross Anthony is the Interim Director at the Centre for Chinese Studies (CCS), Stellenbosch University. This article was first published on CCS's website.