By Edward Chinhanhu
It goes without question that South Africa is SADC’s regional economic powerhouse. However, whether the country continues in this position depends on the political leadership. In a paper titled “The Political Economy of Regional Integration in Southern Africa” Soko argues that regional integration in Southern Africa will not succeed unless South Africa discharges its responsibilities in accordance with its hegemonic status. This is because the country is by far the biggest and most diversified economy in the region. But, he goes on to say, whether South Africa can assume a hegemonic regional role depends on three points. The first is the extent to which the country’s political and bureaucratic elites are able to balance the country’s regional obligations against domestic pressures. The second is the manner in which the country deals with the legacy of apartheid. The third is the degree to which the country’s leadership credentials are accepted by other regional states.
If there was anything that could betray Africa’s cause and make the continent’s founding fathers turn in their graves, it would be the spate of xenophobic attacks in South Africa in recent years. These attacks are a blatant negation of what many of Africa’s legendary leaders stood for. It was the oneness amongst them, springing from the shared philosophy of Ubuntu, and a shared history that gave birth to the OAU, then the AU, SADC, NEPAD and other progressive organizations.
SADC in particular was a product of the political struggles of the region. It started as an the organisation Frontline States and then evolved into the Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference (SADCC) which sought to create an economic buffer against apartheid South Africa, which was a destabilising force both economically and politically.
Granted; freedom to South Africa came with its own challenges. There were high expectations of a better life from the long suffering black population, and the government had to be seen to be delivering. On the other hand, South Africa’s neighbours saw an opportunity to escape poverty at home and secure employment, taking advantage of the disadvantaged indigenous South Africans. Matters were further complicated by the SA capitalist economy, which is still very much in the grip of apartheid’s infrastructure. Naturally, given this situation, conflicts between citizens and immigrants would flare up, leading to xenophobic attacks.
However, the reasons for the attacks do not make economic sense. Today, nearly all economists, of all political persuasions, agree that immigrants — legal or not — benefit the host country’s economy. Most of these immigrants are young, energetic and well-educated, and are not eligible to receive benefits. European immigrants to the UK have paid more in taxes than they received in benefits, helping to relieve the fiscal burden on UK-born workers and contributing to the financing of public services. The same is true of Canada and Australia, and the literature on this subject is abundant and readily available. Though for a time immigrants may compromise indigenous unskilled labour, it pays in the long run. If anybody thinks that the attacks do not damage the South African economy, they are wrong.
The recent xenophobic attacks had a knock on the growth of South African companies attempting to expand into other African countries. In an article written soon after the April 2015 attacks, Lynette Chen, CEO of NEPAD Business Foundation, warned that rating companies like Standard & Poor’s and Fitch had downgraded South Africa’s sovereign credit rating to BBB – and warned of further downgrades. Citing concerns about South Africa’s inability to tackle its deeply rooted structural problems, Moody’s also followed suit and downgraded South Africa’s major banks to BAA1. Chen warned that if not resolved quickly, the disruptions caused by the xenophobic attacks and the threat of more widespread violence across the country would exacerbate the financial position of the South African economy, and might add to factors that would result in further downgrades.
To make matters worse, the attacks happened just a few months after the AU and NEPAD launched Africa’s Agenda 2063, which is a 50 year roadmap to Africa’s economic success. It envisions a continent united in its identity, vision and progression.
To conclude, let me highlight that peaceful co-existence among the region’s peoples is a part of their Ubuntu. South Africa is a huge, culturally diverse nation with 11 official languages and five racial groups. It is also home to nationals from 53 African countries, which gives the country richer ethnic variety than the rest of the continent. Instead of harassing immigrants and imposing stringent restrictions that are akin to xenophobia, I strongly feel that South Africa must make immigration easier by encouraging immigrants to obtain work permits, open bank accounts, and spend as much as possible. Of course, there should be some measure of regulation, but shooting, bludgeoning, burning, torturing, stabbing, raping and looting their property is a huge betrayal of the dream our founding fathers gave their lives for.
Edward Chinhanhu is a Zimbabwean peace activist and scholar. He is a Transitional Justice Fellow, and Fellow of the Rotary Peace Centre at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. At present he is Zimbabwe Correspondent for ‘Insight on Conflict’, an online peace magazine published by Peace Direct, London.