One of the first consequences of the economic meltdown in Zimbabwe was the mass exodus of qualified personnel who moved to other countries in search of greener pastures. This hit its peak around the early to mid-2000s when a lot of Zimbabweans left for the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, the United Stands and of course South Africa. This was such a sizeable block of people and in time they gained a moniker-diasporans after the Jewish Diaspora. In time the Zimbabwean Diaspora grew in both number and economic importance. There was also an increase in the migration of unskilled labourers who tended to favour South Africa as it is closer to Zimbabwe and generally easier to enter. Now that is changing as South Africans increasingly become xenophobic with tacit government approval.
South Africa has been both the biggest beneficiary and loser of the Zimbabwean Economic Migration movement. A lot of the country’s businesses have benefited from both the skilled labour and brawn provided by Zimbabweans. Often Zimbabweans are willing to worker more for less sometimes much less than South Africans are. This has created a problem that has incensed the South African population who feel Zimbabweans are being used by South African businesses to disrupt their labour union movement. Whenever workers in South Africa feel they are not getting a fair wage and attempt to engage in industrial action they are quickly replaced by Zimbabwean migrants who are often undocumented and willing to accept the pay dent to make a living.
The Zimbabwen scapegoats
But are Zimbabweans really to blame for South Africa being the most unequal economy in the world? In case you are unware. While South Africans often want Zimbabweans chased out because they blame them for fuelling crime that is provably false as a simple perusal of crime records clearly show the bulk of criminals in South Africa are of course South Africans. The real reason for strife in South Africa is that inequality we mentioned. Thanks to ineffective and shallow policies over the years including Apartheid, the black majority in South Africa is suffering. BEE was supposed to solve that but it was hijacked by the bigwigs in the ANC who used it as a get rich quick scheme. The results have been high unemployment, eroded union power and a country on edge ready to explode.
Pressed for answers most people have been contend to just heap it all on hapless foreigners. Zimbabweans are just the ANC’s latest scapegoat. Zimbabweans are to the South African government what sanctions are to the Zimbabwean government. A perennial unfailing excuse for incompetence and corruption. Even if all Zimbabweans were chased and hounded out of South Africa today, that would not solve the underlying problems that the ordinary South African is too simple to see. Much of the wealth in South Africa is concentrated in the hands of a few capital owners. The leaders of the ANC would sooner join these few rich through their various unethical schemes rather than toil to ensure that there is an equal South Africa for everyone. They probably reckon that blaming foreigners will buy them more time in power as it allows them to at least dodge some of the responsibility.
A risk policy that might just blow back
This is a risky strategy and with some government and ANC leaders openly fanning the flames of hatred there is every risk that the situation might get out of control. Genocides have been started on less flimsy reasons and the grievances of the South African population are anything but flimsy. They are real. The South African population has been toiling and waiting for the benefits of democracy to trikle into their laps but as often happens in cases of unbridled capitalism that has not happened. There is every risk that blaming foreigners for all the woes in South Africa might lead to mass murder and mayhem on a scale that might be considered genocidal.
This might put South Africa on a collision course with other African governments who already fill they are unreliable partners especially given the country’s stance on a number of issues that has seen them being labelled as too pro-Western. The African continent views itself as mostly non-aligned and that spirit is back in vogue in the multi-polar world we find ourselves in. There is very little risk of a kinetic war in the SADC region but South Africa can kiss that permanent seat on the Security Council they have always coveted. There will also be the issue of diminished influence across the region.
Already the ANC is on a collision course with Harare with the relationship headed for the rocks whatever the ANC does. If the South African government wants to chase out Zimbabweans it creates problems for Harare. Not only will a decline in diaspora numbers lead to economic issues it will also create strife in a country that is also on edge. South Africa and the diaspora in general have acted as a pressure valve for the country’s woes. The diaspora for example has been able to prop up a largely mismanaged economy by pumping in billions in remittences. This has allowed the people of Zimbabwe to survive and even sometimes thrive in spite of shameless looting by government officials who just get pats on the back as punishment. Without the South African diaspora the Zimbabwean economy will implode and the ensuing strife can lead to civil unrest or even something resembling a civil war.
The government in Harare is very much aware of these things but they are also aware of something else. They cannot tell South Africans how to run their own country. For decades South Africa has pretty much allowed the Zimbabwean government to do whatever they want no matter how controversial on the global stage. Quiet diplomacy the South Africans called it. Recently the ANC was chased out of Zimbabwe for trying to tell Harare to rein in their looting and corrupt excess which has led to another economic crisis. The Zimbabwean government cannot tell the ANC off and then demand action on xenophobia in the same breath. The result has been awkward murmers from Zimbabwe it is only a matter of time before a war of words erupt. While Zimbabwe is smaller, the ruling class in Zimbabwe consider themselves the big brother in the equation. Traditionally Zimbabwean leaders have excelled at tongue lashing against foreign officials. It’s just something they excel it.
The sum of it though is that xenophobia in South Africa is not just some far removed problem. It is something that will have profound effect on Zimbabwe’s economic and political well being. From the look of things though, the South African elite seem to think that they have more to gain from supporting Xenophobia as more and more of them support Xenophobic movements.