With misleading headlines like "Foreigners attacked in South Africa" and "Violence erupts in South Africa" it is understandable that foreign tourists planning to visit South Africa are concerned. But the Ebola outbreak has taught us two things - firstly, the media loves to exaggerate. The scarier the headline, the more clicks or newspaper sales. Shame on them! Secondly, it has taught the tourism industry to be resilient and proactive in the face of challenges that harm the tourism industry, which should not harm tourism at all. Like Ebola, the xenophobic violence is another perceived threat that is actually not a threat toward tourists at all.
Xenophobic violence in South Africa is aimed at immigrants, most of them from other African countries, who have opened shops and businesses in South Africa, in particular in the townships or slums. They are seen as a threat to local jobs and business, perceived to be taking opportunities (and wives) away from the locals. It is NOT directed at foreign tourists, and the violence is limited to poor areas with high immigrant populations - certain downtown areas and the townships. It does NOT affect any of the areas frequented by tourists, and tourists are NOT the target of this violence.
So how and why does this violence toward foreigners occur?
A family of Somali immigrants, fleeing from the war and terrorism in their own country, decide to settle in South Africa. Being hard workers but unable to find work, they open up a small convenience shop in the township, in order to support themselves. Often the shop is simply part of their shack (they live at the back of their shop). For years, the locals co-exist peacefully by their side and buy from them. It is convenient, having this little convenience shop next door! But among some unemployed and uneducated locals, jealousy festers below the surface. Then, one day, the seeds of xenophobia, bigotry and hatred are sown and violence flares up against foreign immigrants (in this most recent case it seems to have been sparked by the Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini, who made some very unfortunate and inflammatory remarks against foreigners in a recent speech, telling them to go back to their own countries). For some reason, it spreads to other poor areas and unemployed young thugs go on the rampage in the slums, looting shops and killing the foreign shop owners.
The police responds, naturally, and soon we have scenes of police with guns and teargas surrounding an angry crowd of locals trying to burn down a shop owned by a foreign immigrant. Not pretty. But these are isolated scenes, in isolated areas.
Once the media gets wind of it, there is no stopping the screaming headlines and the country suffers major PR damage across the globe. Tourists abroad, seeing headlines about violence against foreigners, wrongly conclude that it is no longer safe to visit South Africa, and cancel their plans to visit this beautiful country. This happened in 2008, lasting about two months, and it seems to be happening now again. As in 2008, there have been NO incidents involving tourists, and the violence is localised in certain areas (mostly poor neighbourhoods and townships) that are not visited by tourists (nor even by most locals). The rest of South Africa, including all of our game reserves, tourist routes, towns, suburbs, malls, mountains, beaches, parks and markets are unaffected and perfectly safe to visit.
I am reminded of the 2011 London Riots which spread to other parts of England. This, too, generated headlines around the world about the looting and arson and violence. But did we see anyone putting out warnings against travel to England, or avoiding London altogether? No, it was business as usual for the tourist regions in London. The same is true for South Africa. If you avoid the townships and downtown areas where there is some violence against foreign immigrants, and stay away from large crowds or demonstrations which can lead to a flare up of emotions, you will be perfectly safe in South Africa. Come and see for yourself!
Say NO to xenophobia
As a company, we categorically add our voice to say NO to xenophobia. Our hearts go out to the many foreign immigrants who came to South Africa seeking a better life, fleeing desperate conditions at home, only to be persecuted by some small-minded, racist bigots who are threatened by the work-ethic and entrepreneurial spirit of these immigrants. It's a small minority, but they put our entire country to shame.
About the author
Onne Vegter is the managing director of Wild Wings Safaris. He has a deep love for Africa's people, wildlife and natural heritage. Onne has travelled to most of Africa's top safari destinations and his writing is based on years of personal experience in the safari industry. Follow him on Twitter at @OnneVegter.