South Africans are lazy, foreigners are criminals stealing their jobs and women, and there’s a third force trying to undermine the country’s stability. For many people, outbreaks of xenophobia in townships could be explained by some variation of this statement.
But does anybody really think South Africans are generally lazy? Is it a sign of laziness that there are packed trains every morning, as early as 4am, making their way into the CBD and its outskirts? Does the low cost of domestic servants indicate undersupply? Or perhaps, the street corners in some townships littered with men looking for “piece jobs” indicate a populace unwilling to work for a day’s bread?
On the stealing of jobs; how does that work exactly? Does one arrive at a job that’s sitting on the table, and quickly slides it into one’s back pocket, and then one casually walks out? Or do people actually get hired at low wages by unscrupulous employers, because the authorities failed to protect the borders or monitor employment registers? And to think that women can be stolen is to continue to pretend that they are things to be had and exchanged among men at their will. In this day and age, someone needs to get real.
As for the claim of sabotage, well, where does one start? But I think it’s sufficient to say that our intelligence agencies and law enforcement services are quite capable of sorting out this sort of thing. It’s no small feat that they pulled off a peaceful World Cup. Think about it, scores of Americans and Britons were boozed out of their minds, right here on South African soil, and you think al Qaeda wasn’t hovering around looking to pop a couple of them? But the police were on point, ask one British journo.
Even before the World Cup, does anyone remember the story of television journalists who refused to release the identity of men who were threatening to rob tourists? The police had those men cuffed within days, and all they had was an anonymously recorded video.
We are clearly missing something here, and a conversation with a friend shed some light for me. It’s common knowledge that much of the animosity against foreigners is aimed at the Somalis. My friend, George, estimates that in some townships Somalis own as much as 75% of “business” using a franchising model. How it works is that there is one big guy who sits at the top, my friend calls him the “head of the clan”. The rules are simple, the stock is bought centrally and each shop keeps a constant level of stock measured by rand value. This means the Somali spaza shops have lower prices driving everyone else out of business. But it doesn’t end there; the big guy at the top also makes acquisitions and takeovers of struggling local shops, and sometimes may even retain the management giving the previous owner a set monthly fee. In the mainstream economy, what we may call royalties.
It’s not difficult to recognise capitalism in its best form. And perhaps Karl Marx is useful here, at least in an elementary sense, in explaining what we have come to call “xenophobia”. As things stand, this is more of a revolt against capitalism than it is animosity against foreigners specifically.
But even if we imagined this was in fact xenophobia, it is clearly not unique to South Africa. Everyone knows this is not a Zulu or Sotho word. Americans aren’t too happy about the presence of Mexicans within their borders, nor are the British about the multicultural country they now find themselves in. But one thing is for sure, no Mexican will burn on the streets of New York, and it’s unlikely that an Asian man will be thrown off a subway in London. It’s just a foreign occurrence, if you’ll excuse the pun.
But as capitalism (as practiced by the Somalis in townships) creates tensions and the exploitation of cheap foreign and desperate labour by South African business creates more tension, we find ourselves with a time bomb.
Two things will have to happen – business will have to be more scrupulous in the way they conduct business and a new system will have to emerge in townships. If George has the picture right, the Somalis will have to do things differently. And, of course, our law enforcement needs to come to the party.
Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few best selling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and advisor to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.
Stephen Hawking held a party for time travellers. He sent the invitation out the day after. Nobody attended.