While xenophobia is a destructive and reactionary force, the fact remains that a substantial group of the South African population are not xenophobic. Nevertheless, the discriminatory attitudes learned during apartheid has sadly not yet left most South Africans, not by a long shot.
In South Africa, foreigners, especially black foreigners have come to be perceived as a direct threat to the future economic health of the country. They are seen to be sponging off public services while diligently chipping away at the economy for their own selfish survival.
The xenophobic violence of 2008 did not come out of nowhere. Neither did the current wave of attacks on foreigners and foreign owned businesses.
An interesting national survey in late 2006, by the South African Migration Project of the attitudes of the South African population towards foreign nationals in the country revealed among other findings that South Africans do not want it to be easier for foreign nationals to trade informally with South Africa (59% opposed), to start small businesses in South Africa (61% opposed) or to obtain South African citizenship (68% opposed).
As the 2006 Survey confirmed, xenophobia and hostility to (particularly) other Africans is not the preserve of a lunatic fringe. Xenophobic violence stems from the xenophobic convictions of the majority of South Africans.
With spiraling effects like sanctions, boycott of South African products, retaliatory violence against South Africans in other parts of Africa and the threat of terrorism amongst others, South Africans need to understand that these waves of attack puts the country in a negative position, and prevents investors and tourists from looking at South Africa as a safe destination thereby preventing the creation of the much needed jobs and perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty.
Foreigners and locals need to create platforms for collaboration. Leaders and people in positions of authority, community leaders, social workers etc need to build the bridges that connect rather than destroy. Border control and other migratory policies need to be strengthened. The rainbow nation is a beautiful nation and we can harness our diversity to create a bastion of hope on the African continent.