Xenophobia flares ahead of Zambian elections

Shop customers are threatening migrant traders with violence come the national elections in August, amid a rise in xenophobia that appears to correlate with election periods in Africa.

Rwandan traders in Zambia are fearful because certain elements have said they will attack shop owners during the 12 August presidential and national assembly elections.

“Some people come in and ask for goods on credit or at a lower price and if I refuse, they tell me I should watch out during elections, my shop and I will be harmed,” says Isaac, who declined to give his full name. 

Isaac owns a tuck shop in Bauleni township, 20 minutes from Lusaka’s central business district. He lowers his voice every time a customer enters his shop or a car drives past. 

He was arrested in December for not renewing his residency permit on time and only released in February. Isaac is experiencing the same xenophobic attitudes towards him as other Rwandan shop owners nearby, he says. 

“I have even stopped fighting back nowadays, because it is an ongoing situation. I have many of these experiences, where customers say awful things to me,” says Isaac.

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Zambia has been mostly peaceful compared with its Southern African Development Community neighbours when it comes to xenophobia. The most notable incident was in 2016, when Rwandan refugees were accused of committing ritual killings in Lusaka and xenophobic riots erupted, resulting in two deaths and 60 Rwandan-owned shops being looted.

A man who calls himself Uncle John says only a few people discriminate against him. He says it would be helpful if the Zambian government sped up the process to get documented. 

“I was made to feel like I’m not a human. When a man asked for goods on credit and I told him no, he started insulting me and asking me how dare I refuse him what he wants when I’m not even Zambian. He threatened me and said they are voting this year as Zambians and I will be sorry,” said John.

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Around two million ethnic Hutus fled in July 1994 as the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front captured the capital of Kigali, ending 100 days of ethnic killings during which Hutu extremists had slaughtered about 800 000 people, mostly members of the Tutsi ethnic group. Many of those who left settled in camps across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But others continued walking as far as Angola, before settling in neighbouring Zambia. 

The United Nations declared it safe in July 2013 for Rwandans living across Africa to go home and revoked their refugee status, encouraging voluntary repatriation. Despite diplomatic efforts and assurances, about 4 000 Rwandans in Zambia at that time did not want to return to Rwanda and applied for Zambian citizenship.

Data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees suggests that several hundred more Rwandans have joined those 4 000, saying Zambia is more conducive to creating a better life for them and their families.

Abusive customers

Other traders in foreign countries face similar threats. In South Africa, Congolese and Pakistani traders say people come into their shops demanding goods on credit and if they refuse, the customers become abusive. In Isipingo, south of Durban, migrant traders have hired security guards to patrol outside their shops during business hours, because criminals walk out with their stock in broad daylight. 

Isipingo trader Musa Imulani, who is from the DRC, says he has shortened his trading hours because he feels unsafe leaving his shop in the evenings.

“People say hurtful remarks, especially if you don’t give in to their demands. I have to make a profit. I can’t keep selling at a lower price. The biggest problem we have here is crime. Many times, criminals just walk in here, take what they want and leave. Some point a knife, some have guns. We are never really safe,” says Imulani.

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The common thread for xenophobic attitudes is migrants being blamed for spiralling crime, stealing jobs and putting strain on country resources in the two countries, says Adeoye O Akinola, a senior researcher at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in the humanities faculty at the University of Johannesburg.  

“Dwindling economic opportunities and challenging economic realities, political discontent and poor service delivery continue to aggravate social tension and reinforce xenophobia in the southern African region. It is thus concluded that governance failure explains xenophobic attacks in these countries,” says Akinola.

Elections seem to be a trigger for xenophobic violence. Some of the most notable attacks on migrants in South Africa have coincided with election periods. Politicians issue xenophobic statements and political parties scapegoat migrants for the wider disenfranchisement of residents in South Africa and Zambia. There is high unemployment, inequality and widespread poverty in both countries, which the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated, and this is fertile ground for an increase in xenophobic violence. 

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Zambia’s population was estimated at 18.8 million people in mid-2020, according to UN data. Of this, 65% is under the age of 30 with the median age being 17. The unemployment rate was at 13.2%, with rural unemployment higher at 14.2% compared with urban unemployment of 12.6%. Youth unemployment was 18.2%, with a lower rural youth unemployment rate of 16.2% compared with 18.1% in urban areas, as stated in the Zambian Central Statistics Offices’ 2019 report.

Akinola says good governance that prioritises lifting people out of poverty and making policies that don’t place the already vulnerable migrant community in a more precarious state is the solution to xenophobia.

“To stem the tides of xenophobia, it is imperative for the government to exploit the opportunities presented by immigrants in terms of skills acquisition and transfer, and also implement pragmatic policies for effective governance and improvement in the lives of the masses,” he says.

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