People always ask me how race relations are in South Africa these days, two decades after the end of apartheid. My first response is that they could be a lot worse. Having spent a lot of time there in recent years I can confidently say that everyday relations between blacks and whites are, in the main, cordial and relaxed.
My second response, validated by the shocking clashes of recent weeks, is that where the dangerous tensions exist is between poorer black South Africans in urban areas and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, who pour into the country. If you are ambitious and young and were born in Zimbabwe or the Democratic Republic of Congo or Somalia, South Africa is the promised land.
So south they head, millions of them, and often they prosper. They work hard for less money than the locals. If they set up small businesses, they often undercut the South African competition. This has led to the simmering frustration, and finally violence which we are seeing now in big cities.
The problem boils down to three factors. Affluent as South Africa is compared to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, unemployment runs at 24 per cent. Second, immigrants have work as their priority. Third, if you have been raised in a place like the DRC or Somalia, where the challenge is to survive from day to day, you are better armed with the spirit of naked enterprise than the average black South African, who has the expectation of finding salaried employment and has a state welfare system to fall back on.
The immigration issue in South Africa is not much different from the one in Europe. It turns violent because a far greater proportion of the local population are poor, an often inept police force struggles to cope and because President Jacob Zuma’s government is incompetent.
John Carlin was The Independent’s South Africa correspondent 1989-95
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