Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

By Irene Nyambura

Recently, there have been violent xenophobic attacks aimed at African immigrants in South Africa. The gruesome events started in Durban and spread to Johannesburg and other cosmopolitan cities, bringing memories of the 2008 similar attacks that left about 60 foreigners in South Africa dead. Earlier in the year, shops belonging to a section of foreigners were razed down in Soweto suburb of Johannesburg South Africa.

Xenophobia is an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers, or of that which is foreign or strange. Xenophobia may also involve treatment of foreigners with suspicion and malice.

The republic of South Africa has a strong manufacturing and extractive industries that attracts professional and blue labour jobs from neighbouring countries in the SADC region. The attacks that have continued for over a week are likely to have a negative impact on commerce and economy.  The effects of the attacks have reverberated across media and online spaces. Binyavanga Wainaina, a renowned Kenyan author that studied in South Africa pre 1994 wrote on his memories of life down south, reminiscing the hospitality and love he received from black South African friends and families that took him in as their son while he was a broke student, even as an illegal immigrant as he tried to start off his career in writing. But it seems times have changed.

Unlike South Africa, a large number of Kenya’s population of foreigners is made up of refugees. Daadab refugee camp in Garissa, north eastern Kenya is home to over half a million refugees mainly from Somalia. The camp was started over 20 years ago when trouble began brewing in Somalia after the fall of the then dictator Siad Barre. Other refugee camps such as Kakuma have been home to hundreds of thousands of refugees that fled from conflict in Burundi, Rwanda, DR Congo, Uganda and South Sudan in the past.  There are many urban refugees living outside camps in Kenya that have defied arbitrary Kenya government directives in the past for them to move into camps.

Kenya is also home to several international intergovernmental and nongovernmental organisations that employees a good number of expatriates as well as Kenyan citizens. Arrangements to host such institutions usually include legally binding documents that spell out the minimum number of Kenyan citizens that should be employed in these organisations to avoid disenfranchising local population. As such, there is minimal cry for jobs from citizens. But this has not wiped out been sporadic spells of negative online sentiments against sections of foreigners from specific countries. A general and sad norm has been for Kenyans online to castigate an entire country’s population that resides in Kenya. We must be informed and be accommodating of other if Kenya is to

Social media sentiments of major international media newsfeeds show that many Africans including Kenyans, have been angered by the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa and the seemingly lack of immediate and deeper actions by South Africa’s government to act on or prevent the attacks.  Trevor Ncube, a South African journalist working for an international business journal was among the country’s prominent social media figures that started an online campaign against xenophobia. Trevor and many other writers, sports figures and artists joined online campaigns against xenophobia. In fact Tsepo Masilela, a South African footballer spoke boldly against intolerance to foreigners in a Facebook post that was widely shared.  Popular Facebook page ‘This is Africa’ carried  a post encouraging fans to debate on South African leadership  in relation to South Africa  president Zuma’s 2014 snide remarks  that South Africans ‘should not think like Africans’.

Back at home, there have been cries for Daadab refugee camp to be relocated back to Somalia especially soon after the Westgate and Garissa terror attacks.  The relationship between terror attacks and Somali community in Kenya including refugees has been overemphasised and generalised. Never mind that terror attacks in Kenya requires complex multifaceted solutions. The call to repatriate Somali refugees has been consistent online as initiated by Kenyan social media outlets debates.

Many Kenyans online support the move that is resonated by a few top government and business officials yet termed by some civil society actors as an action borne out of cathartic emotions and xenophobic fear. Can the same cluster of Kenyans that are appalled by South Africa’s xenophobic attacks be the same ones that are calling for repatriation of Somali refugees after the Garissa University terror attack?

A look at online images of suspects of Xenophobia attacks arrested by South Africa police reveals a pattern of young black men. There have been claims by perpetrators of this violence that immigrants have taken over jobs from local South Africans and interference with the normal social life of citizens by African immigrants.  Back in Kenya, a similarly generalised blanket excuse exists; that Somali refugee population poses a risk to our national security.

South Africa’s leadership should recognise that the black population’s entrepreneurial ambition and spirit had been suppressed for too long and initiate programmes to train and empower black youths in readiness for building entrepreneurship culture and job creation beyond seeking blue collar employment  in the country’s manufacturing industry.

For the Kenyan situation, it is imperative that national authorities and agencies work together to ensure harmonisation of international agreements with national laws and local realities (political, social and economic) while putting up systems that ensure refugees are documented and secured for specific periods of time. Refugee-ship should not exceed a certain number of years while compromising host countries’ economic systems.  Kenya government should set up programmes that help pockets of youth that feel disenfranchised socially, politically and economically from the governance systems.

As Tsepo Masilela, a well known South African footballer recently posted on Facebook:  ‘we are all strangers somewhere in the world’. We must therefore ensure that we treat foreigners with the dignity they deserve, respect their human rights and put up systems to ensure that immigrants abide by the national laws of Kenya if our country is to attract a cosmopolitan population that is characteristic of any growing and diverse economy.

Irene Nyambura Mwangi is a Special Correspondent (Development & Democracy in Africa)