Government anti-xenophobia plan: make foreigners toe the line, cite the World Cup

By Andy Rice 8 July 2010

It is, quite frankly, not an awe-inspiring action plan. The revived high-powered Inter-Ministerial Committee on xenophobia says the best course is to remove the reasons for discontent in townships – by making sure corner-cutting foreign spaza shops don’t piss off locals, for example – and make sure regular policing is up to scratch. Other than that, it believes the only real problem is a lack of education.

Government anti-xenophobia plan: make foreigners toe the line, cite the World Cup With persistent threats against foreign nationals in townships continuing, and some people leaving the communities where they have made their homes for fear of violence, you’d think decisive action would be called for. But those tasked with avoiding a repeat of the xenophobic attacks of 2008 say the problem isn’t xenophobia but crime with an overlay of social discontent. Which seems to mean a minimum of special action is required.

“We are ready for any criminal act by anybody, be they foreign nationals or South Africans, so if someone in whatever form thinks that he or she would break the law, the law enforcement agencies would be there,” said police minister Nathi Mthethwa, who chairs the committee of ministers that was created after the 2008 attacks and recent reactivated.

The underlying message is that expectations of attacks on foreigners immediately after the World Cup are overblown, don’t represent a crisis and can be handled without extraordinary measures. Any questions? Because whatever they are, the answer is “World Cup”. Should we take rumours of planned attacks seriously? Not really, no, because rumours that SA wasn’t ready for the World Cup proved false. Are police capable of reacting quickly enough in case of an outbreak of violence? Yes, just look how well we policed the World Cup. Are investors being scared off by these rumours? No, because they saw how well SA handled the World Cup.

Despite strong evidence of deeper and more complex roots, the committee appears convinced that crimes of opportunity, youthful exuberance and a little jealousy are the only problems that Somalis in the Western Cape and Zimbabweans in Gauteng face. Part of the answer, therefore, is to make sure those wily Somalis pay their taxes.

“Some of the tension arises as the result of some competition, particularly at that level where in the normal situation shopkeepers or spaza shop owners would be in competition with each other, but because it is happening with foreign nationals it becomes an issue,” Mthethwa said.

How is it that those darned foreigners can sell everything cheaper? Because they use residential properties as shops, break municipal bylaws, fail to pay certain taxes, and otherwise cut corners. They also tend to keep cash about the place, making them soft targets. So the solution is to police them, make sure they comply with the rules that the locals have to abide by, and – tada! – problem solved.

That may seem somewhat naive, but is in line with the recommendations some civic organisations and social researchers made after the 2008 attacks. In communities living on or below the breadline, they argued, any perception of unfair advantage is a powder keg. By implication, if foreigners are seen to be more heavily policed by everyone from health inspectors to tax collectors, then at least one excuse for xenophobia would be removed.

Then, hopefully, it becomes a problem of education. The committee has promised an “aggressive” communications rollout to spread the word that, at Mthethwa puts it, “your brother from another mother is still your brother”. It has also promised to “mitigate the risk posed by the unbalanced media reports which still instill fear about possible attacks”. Especially reports by that filthy foreign media.

By Phillip de Wet

Photo: Police minister Nathi Mthethwa. (The Daily Maverick)


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