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Whites have dinner party bigots; blacks have tweeting xenophobes

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

As much as the soccer World Cup may be bringing us all back together again, it is also highlighting the ugly divisions that still exist within our society.

Nigeria put in an outstanding performance against Argentina in the second group B match of the Fifa World Cup, and none did better than goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama. His performance was absolutely brilliant, as he made a number of outstanding saves to deny the Argentine attack, especially Lionel Messi, a second goal. I was at the Centurion Fan park for that match, and as much as I expected the superior Argentines to win, I couldn’t help getting caught up in the Afro-euphoria of the crowd surrounding me on the freezing ground (the crippling back ache I got as a result of sitting on the cold ground will make for riveting around-the-braai conversation). I lustily cheered Enyeama’s every brilliant save.

I poked into Twitter every now and then during the course of the match, as one does, and immediately noticed the surprisingly high number of xenophobic tweets coming from black South Africans on my timeline. Unbelievably crazy things like “I honestly dislike Nigerians”. It was debilitating, frustrating, maddening and crushing.

We are all-too aware of the xenophobic violence that exploded in 2008, threatening to quench the bright sparkle of the “Rainbow Nation”. I needn’t rehash the past in this regard. It was ugly.

Many articles and journal entries have been written on the issue of xenophobia in South African society (especially black South African society) and all seemed to focus exclusively on the perpetrators of this xenophobic violence, the so-called poor of South Africa. Most of these articles suggested that the xenophobic tendencies expressed through violence by the poor were simply an expression of outrage against government’s service delivery failure.

While that may be mostly true, my experience this weekend differs.

The first notable thing is that these new xenophobic utterances came through on Twitter. That is very telling. Internet penetration is very low in South Africa, as low as 10% among the black population, by some estimates. This means that if you’re a black South African and you’re on Twitter, then you are one of the privileged few, with an education and access to resources.

Under those circumstances, there is absolutely no excuse for your xenophobic ways. None whatsoever.

It boggles the mind that people who underwent prejudice and suffering because of their race cannot empathise with the suffering of other human beings. Why is it so difficult for blacks in this country to correlate the suffering that we underwent because of apartheid with the suffering of others on this continent today? Those of us who know better than to blame the supposedly more prosperous foreign Africans for our problems must lead the charge against xenophobia.

For us, this is not about limited resources or opportunities.

Ever since the first service-delivery riots under the Mbeki administration, it has become increasingly clear that the worst-off in this country view prosperity, or indeed survival, as a zero-sum game. Your neighbour’s every gain is your loss, and vice versa. This is thanks to government’s atrocious service delivery record. It is the nature of things when human beings compete for limited resources.

Well, if you’re on Twitter, you have no such problem. Your prejudice in entirely unjustifiable, and given this country’s history of xenophobic violence: completely criminal. We’ve heard that there is a certain mood of dreadful expectancy once the World Cup is over, as if some are merely waiting for the World Cup carnival to leave town so they can bash the nearest Nigerian’s head in. The poor do indeed have a quarrel, but is it with a government which limited access to resources and exacerbated the plight of the neediest through poor service delivery.

Those of us who ought to know better have no such excuse. Those of us who underwent prejudicial treatment, whether  through experience or inheritance, cannot possibly pass those experiences on to others. It is quite simply immoral, and I can’t say that often enough.

Diversity is our greatest asset, and those who don’t recognise that deserve our contempt. I quite like what writer and photographer Victor Dlamini tweeted. He wrote, “those who utter vile xenophobic nonsense are usually little travelled bigots with a limited grasp of how diversity is an asset”.

As disappointing as it may be to discover that some whites still refuse to embrace the new diaspora, some 16 years after it was ushered in, it is infinitely worse to discover that some blacks still refuse to acknowledge that we blacks are one and the same, despite political, cultural or linguistic boundaries.


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