OP-ED

If it’s not xenophobia, then what is it?

By Mavuso Msimang 13 August 2019
Caption
File Photo: A South African officer holds the chains of an arrested resident wo is allegedly involved in looting and clashes with foreign residents during a xenophobic march by the Mamelodi Concerned Residents through the streets of Pretoria, South Africa, 24 February 2017. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

African National Congress and government responses to recent crises arising from the presence in the country of asylum seekers, genuine and otherwise, raises deeply disturbing questions. This is with regard to whether the party is still committed to its founding philosophy of pan-Africanism and whether its government is willing to fulfil its international obligations and implement the country’s foreign policy imperatives.

The ANC’s pan-Africanist ideological outlook and its concomitant influence can be demonstrated in ways too numerous to recount in this article. Suffice to say that representatives from territories that are now called eSwatini, Botswana and Lesotho attended its 1912 founding conference as full delegates.

When it was the turn for the Zimbabweans and Zambians to launch their own freedom struggles in the then Northern and Southern Rhodesia, they chose to call their parties “African National Congress”. Additionally, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania adopted Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica as their national anthems, only modifying the lyrics to suit their particular national circumstances. Hail to Enoch Mankayi Sontonga, the composer of our hymn-turned-anthem!

Today’s ANC owes the international community a deep debt of gratitude. When in 1960 the apartheid regime banned the organisation, Oliver Tambo was sent abroad to mobilise international support for the freedom struggle in South Africa.

At one level, able and willing countries were asked to support uMkhonto weSizwe by providing military training facilities, logistical, financial and other tools of the trade. At another level, a huge effort was mounted towards the mobilisation of international solidarity to isolate the racist republic.

Ordinary people, their organisations, churches, non-government organisations, the United Nations system, and so on all put their shoulders to the wheel to help push the pernicious apartheid system out of existence.

The role played by African countries under the auspices of the Organisation of African Unity (now AU) cannot be overstated. Comprising mostly low-income nations, it sacrificed what little it had to assist South Africa’s ascent to democracy. The price Lesotho, Mozambique, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Angola paid for supporting the ANC was the frequent bombing of their villages and destruction of their economic development infrastructure. People from these countries lost their loved ones for the sake of liberation in South Africa.

And so, after three-and-a-half centuries, the colonised people of South Africa achieved freedom on 27 April 1994. They have lived peacefully with the progeny of their former colonisers and oppressors, albeit social cohesion and relations between the races are at an all-time low, post-democracy.

What about coexistence with Africans from the rest of the continent? Evidence to hand indicates it’s not been very good. Violence against foreign citizens, especially refugees, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants from African countries is quite common. A study based on a citizen survey in the Southern African Development Community shows that 21% of South Africans wanted a complete ban on foreign entry into the republic while 64% favoured strict limitations on the numbers permitted.

Violence against foreign traders has been on the increase after the onset of democracy. A few highlights: in the Cape Flats in 2000, over a five-week period, seven foreigners were killed in what the police said were xenophobic attacks.

In 2001 in Zandspruit informal settlement, Zimbabweans were given 10 days to voluntarily leave the area. When they failed to do so they were forcefully evicted and their houses looted and burnt down.

In 2006, Somali traders appealed for protection after 21 of their number and 26 more were killed in July and August of that year.

The year 2008 saw the worst attacks on foreign nationals — Mozambicans, Malawians and Zimbabweans mainly — in Gauteng, Durban, Mpumalanga and other centres. The tally was 62 dead and several hundred wounded. Property was looted or destroyed. Malawi responded by starting voluntary repatriation of its citizens and Mozambique sponsored a registration of its citizens, also in preparation for repatriation.

Credit must be given to Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign and the Khutsong community for ensuring that in areas they controlled, there were no violent attacks against foreign residents.

It is perhaps understandable, although totally unjustified, when jobless citizens who see foreigners in jobs or having what seems to be priority access to houses, react with violence. Whatever research says about an influx of refugees not negatively impacting on job opportunities for local people, that can hardly be convincing to the unemployed and those without shelter.

What is to be made, though, of the statements issued by politicians in the aftermath of the 1 August 2019 riots when traders and hawkers in the Joburg CBD brazenly attacked the police, forcing them to abandon their planned raid in search of illegal and counterfeit goods?

The ANC Secretary-General’s office at Luthuli House said:

The attack on our law-enforcement officers is an attack on our state and sovereignty… and must never go unpunished.”

The ANC caucus in the Gauteng provincial legislature’s release went:

As the ANC, we regard this brutality faced by our law enforcement officers who were stoned, petrol-bombed and beaten up by foreign nationals as an attack on our sovereignty and on our way of life as South Africans.”

What elevates a criminal act, dastardly as it was, to the status of an attack on sovereignty? Is it because it is perpetrated by foreigners? A few weeks ago, in a roadside robbery, South African thugs menacingly pointed their guns at a group of policemen, ordered them to lie face down and humiliatingly ordered them to drop their pants down to their ankles before driving off with whatever loot they had collected. It so happens that that particular affront was not characterised as an attack on sovereignty.

As for “our way of life as South Africans”, well, it consists of nauseating news about gruesome murders perpetrated in neighbourhoods and elsewhere: aggravated robberies, women and child abuse, rape, abductions and other violent crimes — essential ingredients for a country sliding into a banana republic.

Faith Mazibuko, a Gauteng Member of the Executive Committee (MEC) for Community Safety, had this to say:

We can’t co-govern with criminals, especially foreign nationals who want to turn our country into a banana republic.” Presumably, the criminals with whom she would rather co-govern are the savages who shot and killed two security guards in the most gruesome fashion at Maponya Mall in Soweto in October 2018.

Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, Minister of Small Business Development, says that although Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and so on exclude from business opportunities foreign nationals who reside in their countries, no one accuses them of xenophobia. Her contention is that opportunities in the small business sector should be “preserved for South Africans because the small business economy is a driver for any economy. But it is not creating jobs for South Africans”.

The minister may not be aware that the South African government provides neither food nor shelter to bona fide refugees and asylum seekers. They are literally on their own or depend on the generosity of friends. Without jobs or permission to hawk, survival would be a big challenge.

Besides, as a signatory to the UN and African Unity Convention, South Africa may be violating one of its conditions for receiving asylum seekers. Ntshavheni will soon discover that what is asphyxiating small business in South Africa is lack of funding, red tape and, most importantly, late payments.

Not all is lost, hopefully. That is, if the world heard what Tandi Mahambehlala, Chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on International Relations and Co-operation said to South Africans. She counselled caution and offered the nation much-needed advice when reacting to the 1 August riot.

South Africa’s standing on the global stage, or the efforts of the government in the continent” should not be undermined. And, importantly, “the temptation to resort to an us-against-them approach… should be rejected.”

Finally, an observation as to why, in the first instance, the illegal immigrant problem exists; also, why there are mountains of counterfeit and illegal goods in the country.

This is a direct result of institutional deficiencies: corruption in the Department of Home Affairs and in customs offices; in departments and agencies responsible for the allocation of houses; and in the police.

There are also appalling levels of maladministration.

Last, these institutions are mostly seriously under-resourced. In the case of the South African National Defence Force, there is sub-optimal deployment of resources to ensure that the border is adequately monitored and secured.

These facts are being stated without prejudice to the praiseworthy efforts honest and hard-working employees in these organisations make every day. It is also not being suggested that stemming the tide of illegal immigration is an easy fix.

ANC and government leaders would do well to reflect on Oliver Tambo’s urgings:

Leaders must conduct themselves in a manner that would make the ANC the accepted leader of South African society.”

Following that dictum would go a long way towards helping them shape the nation’s thinking on how best to achieve peaceful co-existence with fellow Africans from other parts of the continent. DM

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