CANADA - As South Africa bade farewell to the eight African heads of state who had attended the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Cape Town, earlier this month, President Thabo Mbeki found himself having to answer yet more questions about last month's attacks on thousands of African migrant workers living in his country.
They stand accused by poor, black South Africans of getting jobs, which are scarce, as well as government-subsidized housing. This recent spate of xenophobic violence left more than 62 people dead, some 670 injured and displaced more than 100 000 migrants in the process. Although calm was restored on South African streets in the days ahead of the WEF, visiting African dignitaries looked towards Pretoria for guarantees of safety for their nationals. As President Mbeki scrambled to find answers as to what had caused last month's mayhem, many migrants could be seen fleeing the country. Unlike their fellow-Mozambicans or Malawians, for many Zimbabweans the option of returning back home simply does not exist. Thousands are believed to have fled the political repression by the state and are determined not to return until political and economic conditions. The country is undergoing an unprecedented flight of skills. Up to three million Zimbabweans are currently living in South Africa. The problem is exacerbated by South African visa requirements for would-be Zimbabwean travellers, issued by a corrupt South African Home Affairs Department, which makes it increasingly easier to obtain illegal identity documents and work permits.
Economic conditions in South Africa have worsened. The country has seen its economic growth slowing and its mining output plummet this year. Meanwhile, the worst nation-wide blackout in the country's history is destroying investor confidence in South Africa, and forcing many industries to shed jobs as a cost-effective measure to minimize the negative effect of higher production costs and profit losses.
Government stands accused of having done little to avert the crisis.
The African National Congress government has been criticized for having millions of South Africans live through daily blackouts at the beginning of the year. With an unofficial unemployment rate as high as 40%, surging food prices, a crumbling healthcare sector, the heavy impact of the scourge of the HIV pandemic that affects more than five million South Africans, and an ever-increasing crime rate, poor South Africans have come to look at African migrants as scapegoats for their socio-economic woes.
The recent criminal violence has besmirched the image of South Africa, as a land of hope and equal opportunities, throughout the continent. Granted the fact that the socio-economic ills facing the country will not be addressed in a span of less than two decades, critics contend that the government should shoulder some of the blame for the current crisis. Its market-oriented macro-economic policy, combined with affirmative action programs, designed to deal with the legacies of the apartheid, has inevitably increased the gap between an extremely affluent white minority population and a small, but steadily growing, extremely wealthy black upper-class, with strong ties to government, on the one hand, and the rest of the population, many of whom live in abject poverty, on the other. The success of these government's policies have been undermined by a failure of service delivery at local level and, more importantly, by the severe skills shortage that the country is facing as a result of emigration.
The question now remains: how long will poor South Africans' frustrations and their desperation about the increasingly dire socio-economic situation be targeted towards their African brethren, before being levelled against government? There will come a time when South Africans will start pointing fingers towards their national leaders, questioning whether their struggle to end apartheid 14 years ago was in vain. In the meantime, Zimbabweans living in South Africa prepare themselves for more difficult times ahead.