What started as an ill-considered comment by a traffic officer directed at the mayor of Newcastle has unleashed dangerous threats of a race war. The issue caught fire when City Press published a letter from a KwaZulu-Natal businessman, Phumlani Mfeka, claiming that South Africans of Indian origin are racist and have no right to citizenship and property in South Africa. Mfeka also claimed there is a “ticking time bomb of a deadly confrontation” between Africans and Indians in KwaZulu-Natal. It’s a hot little potato that will test how South Africa handles bigotry and racism, now that the nation-building project has been abandoned. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
In the beginning there was, of course, the Gupta wedding. The lavish wedding ceremony and mountain of controversies around it catapulted the Guptas from being a politically connected family to a household name and a veritable dictionary of terms for high-flying and hobnobbing.
The public outrage at the family exploiting their political connections to secure the Waterkloof Air Force Base for their personal use made the Guptas the subject of wall-to-wall news coverage, talk shows and column space. The Gupta name thus seeped into the psyche of the nation as a swearword for corrupting businessmen close to their Number One political contact, President Jacob Zuma.
In the town of Newcastle in north-western KwaZulu-Natal, the term mutated in the mind of an expressive traffic officer and he localised it to the microcosm of South Africa he exists in. For him, Gupta was not the name of a family from India who relocated to South Africa 20 years ago to take advantage the changing political climate to advance their business interests. For the traffic officer, it was a demeaning term to refer to South Africans of Indian origin, who seemed well off and of a higher social status than himself. His big mistake was that he directed his teasing at the mayor of his town, Afzul Rehman, well connected in the ANC, somewhat of a high-performer in local government (awarded best performing mayor in KwaZulu-Natal in 2012) and someone who wouldn’t let it lie.
According to the initial reports on the matter, Rehman was renewing his driver’s license at the Road Traffic Inspectorate (RTI) testing station in Newcastle when the traffic officer accosted him in the passageway and said: “Hey Gupta, what are you doing here?” He went on to crack a joke about Indians and when Rehman asked if he knew who he was, he replied: “Yes I know, you are a Gupta.”
Up to this point, the comments can be written off as that of a cocky traffic official, accustomed to hounding people and getting away with it. But on Rehman’s version, the malice was evident when the mayor told the officer that the statements offended him.
He reportedly replied: “You can go back to India and take offence, here in South Africa, this country belongs to us.”
Apoplectic, Rehman reported the matter to the local RTI head and laid a crimen injuria charge against the officer. So the traffic officer ended up jobless, and in all probability even more resentful of Indians.
Ordinarily, the matter would have died down but it has now escalated into a full-blown racial storm. KwaZulu-Natal businessman Phumlani Mfeka, spokesman for the Mazibuye African Forum, which he claims has 1,500 members, addressed a letter to Rehman, which was carried prominently by City Press last week. Mfeka tells Rehman in the letter that he wrote it “in the interest of educating, liberating and also giving you a free but stern warning not to grandstand against an African person as you have done to the traffic official who innocently mistook you as one of the Gupta brothers.”
Included in the epistle overflowing with racial hatred, Mfeka says: “Who do you think you are to ask an African whether they know who you are in their own native land? Indians have never been comrades; they don’t vote for the ANC and thus have no constituency that can warrant you to be mayor in the first place…
“You also missed an opportunity to realise that Africans in this province do not regard Indians as their brethren and thus the ticking time bomb of a deadly confrontation between the two communities is inevitable and shall be exacerbated by the antagonistic attitude that Indians such as yourself and Vivian Reddy have. The traffic official was absolutely correct in reminding you that India is your home, and you should perhaps begin to embrace India as your home as we Africans embrace South Africa as our home which we historically are more than willing to fight and die for.”
As is to be expected, the letter evoked angry responses both towards Mfeka and City Press for running it, as well as complaints to the Equality Court and the SA Human Rights Commission. Mfeka has been emboldened by the attention and has continued to engage his detractors through social media, making statements on Twitter such as, “Watch us reclaim our land and economy in KZN,” and, “No Indian came with land on the Truro or Belvadare (sic). The Land belongs to the indigenous & we shall take it back.”
On his Facebook page, Mfeka also lashed out at ANC KwaZulu-Natal secretary Sihle Zikalala, warning him not “to attempt to engage with me with [a] samoosa in your mouth”.
Rehman declined to engage Mfeka through City Press but has since written back to him. In his letter, Rehman says:
“I see myself as a South African first and then secondly as a person of Indian origin whose roots in South Africa can be traced back four generations. I am a mayor who belongs to the African National Congress and have been elected as such because the majority of people in Newcastle voted for the ANC. The ANC has chosen me to be mayor because of my service to the community.
“I understand and acknowledge that South Africa remains plagued with issues of prejudice and stereotypes. It is clear that the writer does not fully understand the history of Indians in this country and the role they have played to bring democracy to South Africa. However I personally believe that public debate in this regard will do nothing more than fan the flames of racial discord, prejudice and community segregation.”
Rehman goes on to say that he has consulted with the ANC regional leadership and it decided to invite Mfeka to engage with them on the issue. “We are mindful of the fact that prejudices such as these can only be dealt with by changing behaviour and confronting facts. We therefore hope that the author will accept this invitation so that we are able to continue the proud tradition of the ANC to build a better, united South Africa,” Rehman said.
Mfeka and his forum have not accepted the invitation to dialogue.
The saga has unearthed two issues – both of which nobody seems to know how to deal with. The first is the ANC, and particularly President Zuma’s, relationship with rich Indian businessman. Clearly these relationships are not based on mere friendship but are mutually beneficial, in ways the South African public will never fully know. These relationships are now the source of resentment and despite the ANC’s declared intentions to ensure that its donors do not derive preferential treatment, the evidence is discernible that they do.
The second issue is that, despite decades of colonial and Apartheid rule that ingrained racial hatred and segregation, there is no ongoing dialogue in society on nation-building and racial reconciliation. South Africa was hailed as a model nation for its transformation from a system of statutory racism to the full abolishment of segregation, but abandoned the nation-building project over time.
So while complaints can be made to the Equality Court or the Human Rights Commission when racial slurs or attacks occur, there is no longer any deliberate process to promote racial reconciliation. It was assumed that because South Africans across racial groups live, work and play together, the memories and prejudices of the past would eventually recede and people would learn to accept each other as equals.
But as has been evident from the outbreak of xenophobic attacks in 2008 and in the past few weeks, it does not take much spark violence against foreign nationals, perceived to be taking away resources from the indigenous people. By Mfeka’s definition, Indian South Africans are invaders exploiting the country’s resources illegitimately. What in South Africa’s milieu informs and educates otherwise? Nothing really. By the same token, what is there to quell fears in Indian townships now that Indians will be targeted and dispossessed of their property and citizenship? The promises of Nelson Mandela from long ago? The hope that the ANC will seek the Indian vote again in 2014 and therefore engage with the community sometime before then?
The truth is that in South Africa, way too much is left to chance and social issues are only tackled when they reach crisis proportions. If the “deadly confrontation” Mfeka is promising does happen, there will no doubt be breast-beating across society and all manner of interventions to stop it. But despite racism and prejudice still lurking, there is nothing to actively promote a society that is educated about the past and fosters racial reconciliation.
If anything, South Africa has regressed to being a society where dangerous threats can be made openly against an entire community and nobody interrogates them. And Mfeka continues to be the dominant voice in this debate. Just like former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, Mfeka is exploiting latent prejudice and the frustrations of the poor to carve a niche for himself as a latter day freedom fighter. In all likelihood, he will be left to sow mayhem until he too starts to rattle the cages of the ruling elite.
It is quite a shocking indictment on South African society that this how modern day heroes shape and elevate themselves. DM
Photo: Phumlani Mfeka (Source photo: CityPress)
"Go down this set of stairs and then just run - run as fast as you can." ~ Lt David Brink, 9/11