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Blaming foreigners, rather than the national bourgeoisie for the country’s economic downfall

Ghana must go - Decolonization’s borders

Tuesday 25 October 2022, by siawi3



Politics/ Continental

Ghana must go

By Thomas Lesaffre

After 29 years of neoliberal failure in South Africa, foreigners are a convenient scapegoat for a national elite that failed to redistribute wealth. This is a pattern common to post-colonial Africa.

Image credit Dylan Thomas for UKaid via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

In South-Africa there seems to be a seasonal shift: discussions around Zimbabwe and Lesotho workers permits are being hosted by cabinet; laws and administration around visa renewals and working permits have been changed in the last few months; members of the governing party, the African National Congress, are asking for border reinforcement and openly associating foreigner activities in the country with insecurity as opposed to economic growth. Finally, news highlights in South Africa now include scenes of burnt shacks, palpable fear,and public protests as angry mobs frantically search for undocumented foreigners. To fully understand why South-Africa and its democratic institutions are entering a nationalist winter, a snippet of African political history is helpful.

Naturally, xenophobia is not a new phenomenon for the rainbow nation; xenophobic violence dates back to 2008 and has already been largely commented on through an array of media platforms. However, what seems to be surfacing is a new form of institutionalized xenophobia rising from within the state. A few years ago, no political entrepreneurs had seriously taken ownership of the xenophobic agenda. The issue mainly emerged from an impoverished population that focused their efforts in looting local spaza shops typically owned by foreigners from other African countries, as opposed to retail giants owned by white South African capital (which was what happened during the July riots of 2021).

Elsewhere on the continent other historical examples of such narrow nationalism abound. In 1989 in the middle of a long economic crisis and after many marches contesting his power, president Abdou Diouf of Senegal signed a decree to expel approximatelys 170,000 Mauritanians. At that point, The Parti Socialist Senegalais of Leopold Sedar Senghor had been in power since independence in 1960, and Diouf was Senghor’s successor. President Diouf did what many had done before him in response to an economic meltdown: blame the “aliens,” “foreigners,” in a clumsy attempt to gain back political legitimacy without addressing the inequities of a rapacious neoliberal economic order.

In 1968, only two years after toppling the Ghanaian father of independence and pan-African hero, Kwame Nkrumah, Ghanaian prime minister Kofi Busia fell into the same trap: blaming foreigners, rather than the national bourgeoisie for the country’s economic downfall. In 1968, “Legislative Instrument 553 decreed that all non-Ghanaianst had to have a work permit before they could act as employer, self-employed person, or employees. A Compliance Order was issued in the same year giving all foreigners without residence permits two weeks to obtain them or leave the country. Naturally, very few Africans had the necessary papers, and could not even claim it from their institutionally weak embassy. The police and the army were sent to search for and arrest all foreign nationals lacking papers. Ghanaians were encouraged to believe that the departure of the “aliens” would solve all the country’s economic problems. Most of them were Nigerian and ended up coming back in the middle of the Biafra civil war.

Kofi Busia’s fall from power was even faster than Diouf ‘s in Senegal. It took Ghanaians only a few months to realize they had been played and he was forced into exile in England the following year. The rise of xenophobic politics from within the state itself did not bring back economic growth in the country. Instead, inflation skyrocketed and food was scarce. Unable to address these economic challenges and faced with rising popular anger, the state responded militarily to discipline its own citizens, forcing millions of Ghanaian youth to leave the country on the very same roads that were once used to expel foreign nationals.

Millions of them arrived in Nigeria, where a petroleum driven economy was booming. As petrol prices began to rise, Nigeria had nationalized the industry and attained a production level of more than two million barrels of crude oil a day. By 1982 the oil industries had generated more than USD101 billion for the country’s elites. Not only were there West Africans entering Nigeria, but there was an influx of people from rural areas migrating to the cities. Life was good. However, due to a recession in the large petroleum consumer market in the early 1980s, the economic boom in Nigeria waned significantly and then President Shehu Shagari found himself in the same position as his Ghanaian counterpart a few years before. The state under his leadership responded similarly, and in 1982 began expelling non-nationals, criminalizing their activities and blaming them for the failing economy. Most businesses they owned crumbled and the few that survived were shared within power circles and extended to the party patronage. Like in Ghana and Senegal, it did not make the economic situation better for all, but rather re-enforced a kleptocratic elite.

By the time the Nigerian national election of 1983 came about, Shagari and the policemen in charge of the “Ghana Must Go” operation directed their violence towards impoverished Nigerian citizens demanding change where none was forthcoming after the expulsion of foreign nationals. For the Nigerian governing elite, institutionalizing xenophobia was a step to reinforce the state’s capacity to discipline the masses, while at the same time politically trying to gain back legitimacy. Less than nine months after Shagari was kicked out of power, he had to flee the country like Kofi Busia. A year later, then military ruler General Muhammdu Buhari (who is now Nigeria’s incumbent president), announced another round of expulsions, this time, of all foreigners, including those with residence permits. About 700,000 people were forced out of the country.

Returning to present-day South-Africa, after 29 years of neoliberal failure, xenophobia appears a satisfying answer for a national bourgeoisie that has thus far avoided redistributing sufficient wealth to the majority of South Africans, who remain impoverished and exploited. South African exceptionalism is a myth; we are not alone in facing the morbid symptoms of postcolonial decay, where national elites, often erstwhile liberators, lack political imagination.

Institutionalized xenophobia offers false narratives of better days to come. Indeed, African political history teaches us that for a short period of time the national elite is safe, being seen as “doing its job” for the people, but the chimera won’t last. If and when foreigners leave, the situation will not improve. People’s anger will be redirected to the national elite, as demonstrated in Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal.

Thomas Lesaffre is politics and governance teacher at the African Leadership Academy and a freelance journalist.




Politics/South Africa

Decolonization’s borders

By Loren B Landau & Roni Amit

Recent restrictions on refugees—and the limited protests against them—reflect the degree to which many South Africans see “xenophobia” as legitimate hate.

Pretoria Market. Image credit Herve Jakubowicz via Flickr CC.

Echoing global moves to restrict access to asylum, the South African government has recently limited the right of asylum seekers to work, has narrowed the grounds for claiming asylum, and most controversially, has all but silenced refugees’ political voice. Already prevented from voting in South African elections, refugees will now risk losing their status if they vote or campaign for change in their countries of origin. This holds even for those claiming for asylum on grounds of political activism. Should they try it, they would be at risk for speaking up about conditions in South Africa too.

This decision is about far more than the rights of South Africa’s substantial population of refugees and asylum seekers. South Africa’s Constitution promises the country to “all who live in it.” Since the end of apartheid, this has meant legally recognizing the fundamental rights of everyone. Even if constitutional protections have translated poorly into reality for foreigners and South Africans, the principle was sound. Recent changes to the Refugees Act are an assault on this constitutional universalism. What were once guaranteed protections for non-nationals now become privileges.

More alarming is that the government has effectively transformed the Constitution by arbitrary order and regulation, not open parliamentary debate or amendments. Most of these changes do not appear in the amended Refugees Act itself, but in accompanying regulations not vetted through normal legislative amendment process. If left unchallenged, the government is likely to continue reshaping the constitutional landscape in additional areas.

The recent restrictions on refugees—and the limited protests against them—reflect the degree to which many South Africans see “xenophobia” as a legitimate hate. Few see it as akin to the racism and exclusion so many South Africans continue to suffer. Ironically, many claiming to “decolonize” the country’s institutions often reinforce its colonial borders. Many accept opposition leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s proposition from all those years ago: that immigration spells the end to positive transformation. Rather than condemn the exclusion, citizens and politicians embrace it.

Even when South Africa was deporting hundreds of thousands a year in the early 2000s, citizens took to the streets calling for the rest to go. The consequences have been death or displacement for thousands of non-nationals in repeated bouts of “xenophobic violence.”

As the ruling African National Congress has faced declining public support, it increasingly relies on immigration to rally the masses. Drawing isolationist language from the streets and political margins, it calls for closing borders, workplaces, and public services to non-nationals. Such appeals featured prominently in the 2019 election campaigns.

Perhaps most worrying is what these moves reveal about the nature of activism and commitment to constitutionalism among South Africa’s civil society. Only a small group of activists and officials decry these moves. Some critics argue that they align South Africa with Donald Trump’s America or the European Union. While the US and EU might approve, this is not their doing. Rather, it reflects the manifestation of an isolationist tendency baked in to South Africa’s post-apartheid politics. Most South Africans have responded to these changes with deafening silence or quiet nods of approval.

Pro-refugee activism in South Africa continues to play into these hostilities, as it does elsewhere in the world. By making migrants the center of action, middle-class activists alienate the poor and draw lines in the township soil between groups who have similar struggles with economic marginalization, hostile policing, and insecurity. Yet, activists continue to highlight the vulnerability of refugees and migrants alone. More damagingly, they speak of an obligation to assist. This is not just a legal duty outlined by the Constitution and the Refugees Act. Rather, they argue South Africa has a responsibility to protect people from countries who once sheltered South African exiles or mobilized against apartheid. Others appeal to pan-Africanist ideals.

An ethics of reciprocity has its place, but also severe limits. For one, it says nothing about people from countries that did little for South Africa, or for those from other continents. Moreover, neither reciprocity nor pan-Africanism have much traction with the “born-frees”: people who know little about the anti-apartheid struggle, but recognize that not much has changed for their families since its end. They can vote, but jobs are scarce. Many feel aggrieved and marginalized. Among this group, appeals to hospitality and reciprocity gain no traction. Many across Africa support Trump’s nationalism despite his evident racism. Pro-refugee campaigns naturalize the line between citizen and foreigner and reinforce the idea that we must care for others even as we struggle to make ends meet.

The politics of exclusion behind South Africa’s new restrictions have evidently offered short-term political gains for some. Other leaders now seek similar benefits, but elements of these proposals are almost undeniably unconstitutional. Their widespread acceptance reduces the prospects of constitutional protection and democratic forms of disputation for the many. Every anti-immigrant victory creates further incentives for exclusion by parliamentarians or gangsters on the street. When migrants cease to become a threat because of the success of these policies, exclusionary politics will seek another outlet. Politicians who have been rewarded for their politics of exclusion are unlikely to change course, they are more likely to change target. What we need now is not hand wringing over refugee rights, but a revitalized commitment to constitutional principles. This demands a new politics that delivers on promises for South Africans and foreigners, and holds accountable those who have failed to deliver.

Loren B. Landau is a Professor of Migration and Development at the University of Oxford.

Roni Amit is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Tulsa. She was previously a Senior Researcher with the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) from 2008 until 2016.