The xenophobic attacks in South Africa question the continent’s readiness for free trade

When 54 African countries signed the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) many rejoiced as this marked the beginning of a single unified market and the prospects of one Africa. Sadly, the growing xenophobic attacks across the region question the continent’s readiness for a unified African trade.

This September, another round of prejudice against foreigners have begun in South Africa. When the series of attacks against Nigerians happened in the first quarter of 2019, many prayed and hoped that such incidence would be the last. Sadly, this is far from true as many foreigners in South Africa and some other African countries fear for their lives.

As gory and disheartening this attacks by African against one another are, they are not new and have occurred for more than a decade. Right from 1994, immigrants have faced challenges in South Africa and this is because 62 percent of South Africans view immigrants as a burden on society.

A 2018 Pew Research discovered that South Africans believe that foreign nationals take their jobs, social benefits and are responsible for the majority of the crime in their country.

In another study across citizens member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), it was discovered that anti-immigrant sentiment was very strong in the region, with South Africa being the harshest. 21 percent of South Africans favoured of a complete ban on foreign entry while 64 percent would prefer a strict limit to the number of immigrants permitted. Neighbouring Namibia and Botswana share similar sentiments. 10 percent of those surveyed stated they would like a complete ban on immigration.

In a society where violence against foreign nationals is pervasive and xenophobic attacks are growing, one cannot help but wonder the viability of free trade. Presently, there are many hindrances of the intra-African trade and various country rules are part of it. However, when an African country sees another African country or a nation sees a particular ethnic group as a threat, then it shows that Africa is very far from uniting—either through trade or otherwise.

On August 31, Nigeria’s Lagos State Environment Sanitation and Special Offenses Taskforce apprehended young men travelling from the northern part of Nigeria for what it termed an “illegal mass movement of Okada riders.” If a Nigerian who has the constitutional right to travel within his own country can be accosted for travelling illegally, it shows that there is a fundamental problem that hindered us from seeing the next person as part of our community, much less a brother.

While we condemn xenophobia and counter-reactions of other countries, the continent has failed to nip the real challenge (inequality) at the bud. Ten of the world’s 19 most unequal countries are in sub-Saharan Africa and South Africa ranks top. More than half of the African population live in poverty.

The lack of identification of Africans as a single unit has failed to catch on with a lot of countries as they fear an increase in illegal immigration and a decrease in jobs for the locals. Until African governments and its citizenry stop seeing xenophobia and inequality as separate entities, unity may be a mirage for the continent.