South Africa

South Africa

Xenophobic violence: Government walks the walk, but will it talk the talk?

Xenophobic violence: Government walks the walk, but will it talk the talk?

President Jacob Zuma’s announcement on Sunday that he was deploying three Cabinet ministers to deal with the flare-up of xenophobic violence in KwaZulu Natal is a sign that the government is finally taking this massive problem seriously. But what is the point if public figures keep on making irresponsible statements about the role of foreigners in South Africa? By REBECCA DAVIS.

In the past, the South African government has gone to some lengths to deny that attacks on foreign nationals were an expression of xenophobia, preferring to gloss them as merely “criminal”. In June 2013, International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told journalists: “The looting, displacement and killing of foreign nationals in South Africa should not be viewed as xenophobic attacks, but opportunistic criminal acts.” 

After an outbreak of looting of foreign-owned shops in Soweto in January this year, Gauteng community safety MEC Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane again insisted that the attacks not be viewed as xenophobic. Johannesburg mayor Parks Tau was quoted as saying: “The looting and violence that erupted in Soweto was not a result of xenophobia. It was a result of pure criminality.” Gauteng premier David Makhura said the attacks had “nothing to do with foreign nationals”.

This reluctance to label the problem as xenophobia is on one level understandable: it must be deeply embarrassing for a liberation government – given substantial aid by other African countries during the Struggle – to face up to the fact its own people could be so hostile to other Africans (as well as nationals from Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere). As former ANC stalwart Ahmed Kathrada told the Daily Maverick in January: “Xenophobia is racism”.

The official denials that xenophobic violence is happening – in fact, that it never really went away after 2008’s brutal attacks – might explain why so little seems to have been done in a concrete form to prevent further violence. Taking questions in Parliament in March, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was vague on the practical details of what the government was doing to address the problem.

Ramaphosa said that the government was teaching people about the evils of xenophobia through education, and that pamphlets were being produced by the Department of Arts & Culture to “explain our values”.

“It will take time,” Ramaphosa said then.

For the foreign nationals affected by the most recent spate of xenophobic violence, there is no time. Time ran out for Ethiopian Tescsma Marcus in Umlazi on Friday night, when a crowd locked him and his brother in the container which housed their shop and set fire to it. The Sunday Times reported that Marcus had been in South Africa for only four months.

The Durban violence against foreign nationals has now been raging on and off for three weeks. No doubt motivated by concern that the situation may spiral into the kind of scenes seen in 2008, the presidency put out a statement on Sunday announcing that the ministers of home affairs, police and state security are being assigned to work with the KZN provincial government to “arrest the violence”.

The statement does not include the word “xenophobia”, but it “strongly condemns violence against foreign nationals”, with President Zuma quoted as reminding citizens that “many foreign nationals have legal status and contribute meaningfully to the economy and the development of our country”.

It is possibly telling, however, that much of the statement is devoted to placating South Africans concerned about foreigners, rather than the other way round. It states that soldiers are being sent to patrol the borders; that illegal trading is to be cracked down on; that additional support will be given to (presumably local) shopkeepers; and that citizens should report foreign nationals engaging in crime to the police.

In other words, while condemning attacks against foreign nationals, the statement also implies that the problem lies with foreign nationals rather than xenophobic South Africans.

This is indicative of something we have seen repeatedly over the past few years: that while the official discourse is disapproving of xenophobia – when it admits that it exists – there are frequent hints that leaders privately share the concerns of aggrieved locals about the presence of foreigners in South Africa.

The starkest recent illustration of this was King Goodwill Zwelethini’s March 20th address to an audience in Pongola, where Zwelethini told foreign nationals to “pack their belongings and go back to their countries”. This was followed by President Zuma’s son Edward telling News24: “We need to be aware that as a country we are sitting on a ticking time bomb of them [foreigners] taking over the country”. Zuma subsequently refused to apologise for his comments.

Zwelethini and Zuma are not alone. Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane posted a Facebook status in early January complaining that the fact that “almost every second outlet or even former general dealer shops are run by people of Somali or Pakistan origin” was a “recipe for disaster”. In the same month, Small Business Minister Lindiwe Zulu referred to foreigners being allowed to live here as a “courtesy” and suggested that they should feel compelled to share their business secrets.

The list goes on. In Parliament in March, EFF MP Primrose Sonti railed against ANC members in Marikana selling toilets to foreigners. Deputy trade and industry minister Elizabeth Thabethe said in 2013: “You still find many spaza shops with African names, but when you go in to buy you find your Mohammeds and most of them are not even registered.” Former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi took to Twitter in 2014 to complain about “guys from China selling pairs of socks for R6 in the streets – probably smuggled through en masse”.

These are public utterances, so one can only imagine what these leaders are saying in private. There is little doubt that they contribute to a national narrative which demonises foreigners. The notion that the entrepreneurial success of foreigners can be directly correlated with the demise of locals is false and dangerous, but finds repeated expression from political figures who command large and influential platforms.

As Kathrada reminded us, the line between xenophobia and naked racism against those perceived as ‘outsiders’ is often invisible. In the wake of an EFF campaign demanding black managers for stores with 50% black customers, the EFF Ethekwini branch announced on Facebook recently that they would take the campaign to local shops “where majority of staff and customers are Afrikans but all managers are Indians”.

It was not always thus. In Raymond Suttner’s recently published Recovering Democracy, he writes of the ANC under the leadership of Alfred Luthuli: “[In 1951] Members of the ANC (then a purely African organisation) emerged from a rally to find police harassing Indian hawkers. The ANC supporters spontaneously formed a cordon around the hawkers, protecting them from the police”.

Times have changed: reports from this week showed hawkers being looted while police strolled by. The government may make noises of outrage when this happens, but perhaps a good place to start would be by encouraging its leaders to be more responsible in the kind of messages they put out about foreigners in South Africa. DM

Photo: Demostrators march against the wave of xenophobic attacks, in Khayelitsha township near Cape Town, May 31, 2008. REUTERS/Mark Wessels.

Read more:

  • Op-Ed: Government comments on foreign businesses have disturbing echoes from the past, on Daily Maverick

  • Township politics fuel the attacks on ‘outsiders’, on M&G


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