South Africa has over the last week being gripped by a new wave of xenophobic attacks aimed at immigrants from other African countries. The latest wave of attacks are confined to the city of Durban in Kwa-Zulu Natal province with the townships of Umlazi and KwaMashu being the hardest hit. At least four people have died and thousands have been displaced. The latest round of attacks is probably the most significant since the May 2008 attacks that started out in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township and later spread to other parts of the country.
So what factors might be behind the country’s negative attitudes towards migrants?
South Africa’s unemployment rate has risen significantly since the mid-1990s. The unemployment rate in 1995, a year after transitioning to democracy, stood at 15%. According to Statistics South Africa, the 2014 year-end unemployment rate was 24.3%. But with a recently expanded definition, which includes discouraged job seekers, that rate shoots up to 34.6% .
Black South Africans have borne the brunt of the rise in unemployment. The unemployment rate among blacks stood at 27% at the end of 2014 with the expanded definition rate at 39%. Comparable estimates for white South Africans are 8% for the narrow definition and 9% when discouraged job seekers are included.
Matters are much worse with the youth: the unemployment rate in the 18 to 24 age category stood at 49% for the narrow definition and 64% when discouraged youths are included. Structural factors abound in explaining the high levels of unemployment: low levels of education attainment especially among the black population, high minimum wages and spatial geographic factors from the apartheid era that make it costly for people to search for work and to keep jobs once they find them.
In addition, the gap between the haves and have nots has been rising since the onset of democracy. The widely used Gini Coefficient rose from 0.66 in 1993 to 0.70 by 2008 (a Gini of zero signifies perfect equality).
With such high levels of youth unemployment and high levels of inequality it is unsurprising there is now much discontent and anger. And immigrants, particularly those from other African countries, present an unfortunately attractive target: They often trade and live in townships where the problem of unemployment is likely to be the most grave. And since migrants are rarely a random sample, they tend to do better, at least economically, than the locals.
There is an urgent need to address the very high rates of unemployment that South African youth are facing. The government has recently introduced a youth employment incentive where companies can earn tax credits for employing young workers. There is also an opportunity for the authorities to shape a positive narrative around African immigrants in South Africa. They can, for instance, stress some facts around how migrants create jobs as opposed to taking them and how trade secrets are already being transferred to the locals. In some way, migrants might be helping in keeping the unemployment rate from rising even higher.