Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini has up to now not said anything that has had a major impact on life and politics in post-democracy South Africa. He has just been there, presiding and chewing up a large proportion of KwaZulu-Natal’s budget. Suddenly His Majesty has been catapulted in the spotlight after his royal musings sparked a wave of violent xenophobic attacks. It is has fallen on government and the police to try to contain the violence, with even the security cluster ministers trundling out trying to clean up the mess. The king, meanwhile, has been the one receiving an apology instead of making one. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
It is a major minefield for government leaders to navigate the current firestorm of violent attacks in KwaZulu-Natal. They need to quell and discourage the violence against foreign nationals while trying to avoid saying the word “xenophobia” and without trampling on King Goodwill Zwelithini’s toes.
The king reportedly said three weeks ago at a “moral regeneration” event in Pongola: “We are requesting those who come from outside to please go back to their countries.” In what appears to be a consequence of this statement, foreign nationals have been attacked and their shops looted in different parts of Durban, with five people being killed and 48 people arrested. Hundreds of foreign nationals who have been displaced from their homes are being sheltered in temporary camps.
On Tuesday evening, gangs of people carrying knives and sticks were still on the hunt for people from other African countries. Earlier in the day, the Durban city centre resembled a war zone, with burning tyres and blasts of stun grenades during running battles between police and looters.
This all as government leaders are scrambling to get the situation under control and ensure there is no more bloodshed. It would help if they could be more forthright in their messaging, to allow our society to deal directly with the prejudice that is behind the xenophobic violence.
It would also help if they were not trapped in a cultural conundrum, unable to call the king to order.
As things stand, the containment mission has become a royal egg dance.
Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba already got into hot water by saying last week that leaders should refrain from using inflammatory language. Gigaba was addressing foreign nationals displaced by the xenophobic attacks and was obviously trying to settle their fears. But his remarks were perceived by the king as an insult to him, even though Gigaba was speaking generally and mentioned no names.
The Mercury reported that during an induction of a traditional leader in KwaMaphumulo outside Stanger on Saturday, the king said in apparent response to Gigaba’s remarks: “Labaholi bangakhulumi engathi salusa ndawonye. (These leaders should not act as if we herded cattle together.)
“I ask political leaders that we should respect each other. Democracy should not make them feel like demigods.”
It had been expected that the king would use his address at the inauguration of the new chief to retract his comments and call his subjects involved in the xenophobic violence to order. He had apparently been gently lobbied and nudged in that direction – it is disrespectful to tell His Majesty what to do – during meetings with national ministers and the Premier of KwaZulu-Natal Senzo Mchunu.
You would have thought that by now, the monarch would have seen the consequences of his careless statements and decided on his own to do damage control. He was in fact in Durban on Monday night as the violence continued in parts of the city. But instead of making a public appearance, or issuing a statement to apologise for his remarks and demand an end to the violence, he was meeting government officials to “receive” an apology.
The Mercury reported that Gigaba, accompanied by Mchunu, Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko and State Security Minister David Mahlobo, met the king at a Durban hotel on Monday night to smooth things over. Gigaba’s spokesman Mayihlome Tshwete told the newspaper the meeting was not for the minister to apologise but for the security cluster ministers to set in place a plan to restore stability.
Why then would that plan be discussed with the king, unless it was to again an effort to coax him into making a public statement? What other involvement would the monarch have at this stage other than climb down from his ill-considered sentiments and discourage the barbaric behaviour of those of his subjects involved in the attacks?
On Tuesday morning, the security cluster ministers, led by defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula addressed a media briefing in Cape Town on the “security stability of our country”, including what they called “sporadic attacks on foreign nationals”. Mapisa-Nqakula said additional law enforcement officers have been mobilised from around the country and deployed to the affected areas.
All district disaster management centres have been placed on high alert and a 24-hour call centre has been established. Government was working closely with the UNHCR, UNICEF as well as non-governmental organisations to provide food, psycho-social and other support to those affected, she said.
As with the outbreak of attacks against foreign nationals in Gauteng earlier this year, government leaders are still bizarrely avoiding the use of the word “xenophobia”. Government is also being mindful to take into account the concerns of local communities so as not to be seen to be favouring the interests of the foreign nationals.
“Whilst government is going to be taking resolute action against South Africans who attack foreign nationals, we are equally determined to take action against all foreign nationals who commit crime in our country. The possession of unlicensed firearms by foreign nationals and South Africans is a matter of serious concern to our cluster.
“We have established dedicated court rooms and appointed dedicated prosecutors as well as foreign language interpreters to ensure that justice is meted out swiftly in these cases,” Mapisa-Nqakula said.
She went on to say: “We all know that it is incorrect to argue, as some amongst us do, that crime is committed mainly by non-South Africans. Even if we suspect or have evidence that some people are engaged in crime, we should work with our law enforcement agencies so that these criminals are arrested.”
Responding to questions, Nhleko said he found it difficult to believe the attacks were just xenophobic but considered it a “political problem”. “I think it represents a particular political problem to some extent because you don’t see Australians or Britons being chased on the streets and similar demands being placed on them to leave the country,” Nhleko said. “What you are seeing are largely Africans against one another.”
“In a sense, what we are witnessing are Afrophobic kinds of activities and attacks, resembling elements of self-hate among Africans,” he said.
Mahlobo said the matter started as an “industrial dispute” and flared up. “Our intelligence services have early warning systems in place, but the most important thing is our ability to respond timeously. They are doing their best,” he said.
“This is more than a security matter,” Mahlobo said. “This is also a socio-economic situation we find ourselves in.”
And this is precisely why it will take more than the deployment of police to arrest the problem of prejudice and attacks on foreign nationals. For as long as government avoids calling it what it is, it shuts down the dialogue and ability to properly confront the problem of xenophobia. While government is trying to contain the attacks and deal with embassies wanting to repatriate their citizens, the marauding mobs have yet to be addressed directly about their ignorance and prejudice.
On Tuesday the Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada foundations issued a joint statement against the xenophobic attacks. “This is the latest manifestation of a phenomenon which has been troubling our democracy for a long time,” the foundations said.
And then as close to the bone as you could get: “For too long South Africans in leadership positions have either ignored the crisis or stoked the fires of hatred.”
“We call on all South Africans to take responsibility for embracing the hospitality that defines our democratic order and to work together to find solutions to a problem which is destroying lives and bringing South Africa shame internationally,” the foundations said.
On Thursday, Mchunu and eThekwini mayor James Nxumalo will lead a “peace march” through the Durban city centre to demonstrate opposition to violence against foreign nationals.
But just as there are efforts to bring sanity and restore order, there is also the continuation of idiotic statements that could further fan the flames of violence. President Jacob Zuma’s son Edward continues to share his pearls of wisdom on the issue publicly. He said government should stop “unnecessarily accommodating” foreign nationals as South Africa was sitting on a ticking time bomb.
“People think that I am being xenophobic but I am not, I am just trying to make a point that we have a problem,” he told News24. “All those that are in this country illegally must leave. I do not blame them [South Africans] for being angry but what can government do? Home Affairs and the South African Social Security Agency are taking care of them but South Africans will still be angry,” Zuma said.
As with every other problem besieging the country, the leadership vacuum causes chaos to flourish. The violence and mayhem can be stopped through a security operation, but also need a strong messaging from leaders across society. And a massive education and socialisation programme needs to be rolled out to stop the hatred and prejudice against foreign nationals.
Hopefully this will also help His Majesty (who has a Swazi wife) and Zuma jnr. (born in Swaziland) to overcome their chauvinism and ignorance. Perhaps more, it would help them understand that their words cost lives, real people’s lives. Or even more, that their words, ill-considered as they are, could one day be used as a rallying cry for murderers who may just decide the moment has come to cleanse the country of all foreigners.
History has shown that genocide takes root from such irrationality. Would the king really want his imprudent words to seal his place in history in this way?
South Africa today suffers no shortage of idiotic statements. To reclaim its soul, our nation needs the words of wise and considered people. It is quite unfortunate that His Majesty is not one of them. DM
Photo: South African men run from police as rioting and looting was quelled during anti-foreigner violence in Durban April 14, 2015. The wave of anti-foreigner violence that has killed four people in and around the South African city of Durban in recent days, spread to the town center on Tuesday, local media reported, with police firing rubber bullets to disperse angry crowds. REUTERS/Rogan Ward