Ignited apparently by comments made by King Goodwill Zwelithini in <g data-gr-id="63">KwaZulu Natal</g>, the attacks saw at least seven foreign nationals being killed and many more injured and having their livelihoods destroyed. The images of mobs burning and looting while others brandishing traditional weapons were captured and splashed across front pages of newspapers and television screens across the world.
The public image of what Mandela once highlighted as South Africa behaving as ‘a global responsible actor’ was visibly tarnished.
In responding to the situation, the Zuma government sought to appease the tensions that emerged with fellow African countries that South Africa had become an intolerable society against fellow Africans. This proved difficult whereby Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, among others, had decided to repatriate their nationals in light of the attacks.
But the attacks on foreign nationals also generated a significant debate within the country around the question of whether the South African government needed to implement more stringent migration policies. Domestic public opinion <g data-gr-id="65">waivered</g> between those who felt that South Africa had foremost responsibility towards protecting the socio-economic interests of its poor and economically marginalised communities and others who felt that South Africa had a moral obligation to uphold its commitment to international law of being a signatory to global frameworks on refugees and internally displaced people.
But perhaps the real issue that underpins the attacks on foreign nationals is whether South Africa’s official policy towards Africa resonates with the way ordinary South Africans view the country’s relationship with other African states. From the very outset, the South African government sought to downplay the attacks as having an overall element criminality. Yet this proved to be more difficult to prove when some of the attackers displayed blatant xenophobia sentiment accusing African migrants of stealing their jobs and being guilty of crimes such as drug trafficking. What emerged in the ensuing days after the first attacks took place was a desperate debate about whether the <g data-gr-id="80">post apartheid</g> state had forgotten the role that other African states had contributed in the anti-apartheid struggle and the sacrifices that were made.
At the SADC Special Summit held in Zimbabwe, President Zuma presented a report on the issue in which he tersely argued that South Africa had to address its own socio-economic difficulties in creating a better life for its citizens first and foremost. He urged other African countries to start creating viable socio-economic conditions that will afford their nationals similar opportunities in their own country.
While this may have been aimed to appease some of the reaction provoked by the attacks, it unleashed a floodgate of uncertainty and criticism by the African countries about South Africa’s identity as an African state and position in the continent.
For one thing, the country’s transformation record became the subject of intense scrutiny. President Mugabe at the SADC Summit pointed out that after twenty years South Africa’s economy was still in the hands of a white minority while the majority of black South Africans lived in poverty.
Commentary from Nigeria, another country whose citizens paid an apartheid tax, bemoaned that South Africa still remained confronted by its apartheid legacy and had not been able to transcend its identity of race.
So what does this all mean for South Africa’s identity in Africa? For starters, it continues to complicate what Pretoria perceives as its ‘bridge building role’ between the continent and the global system.
More strategically it raises more complexities for how long South Africa can enjoy being the voice of and represent Africa’s interests in international multilateral governance institutions.
Third and perhaps more significant is whether South Africa commitment to sustainable development agenda is at risk by the country’s weak domestic public opinion about its place in the continent and believing that it is set apart from the rest.
The conflicted response by African states towards the recent attacks compels the current South African administration to reorient its public image in Africa if it wants to strengthen its role as an anchor state in the continent’s development agenda and seeking to advance its influence as a development partner with the pending adoption of the aid agency: the South African Development Partnership Agency.
<g data-gr-id="131">Currently</g> South Africa’s African identity is at cross purposes.
Conceived by Kalyan Mukherjee, Consulting Editor, Africa Rising
Research & Advertising by Aman <g data-gr-id="138">Ramrakha</g>