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Xenophobia: Out of the (South African) frying pan and into the (Australian) fire


Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

Disgruntled South Africans who emigrate to Australia because they are ‘fed up with crime and corruption’ are seldom able to accept that the place they have left, and the country they now call home, are startlingly similar. Even fewer can admit that South Africa’s problems just aren’t that special.

South Africans like to think that we have the monopoly on populism and greed. We don’t. I am discovering that the similarities between South Africa – the country of my heart – and Australia – the country in which I now live – are uncanny. In both countries the main political parties have been debilitated by leadership crises. And in both places too many politicians – especially those in the respective governing parties – feel entitled to operate above the law.

In recent weeks xenophobia has dominated the headlines in both countries. In South Africa, as in Australia, officials have sought to deny culpability and minimise the scope of the problems created by their policies and attitudes towards migrants. In both countries, these denials have been wholly unsatisfactory. The stark reality is that the violence witnessed in Soweto and Alexandra this week is not very different, in its essence, from the xenophobic violence that is endorsed by the Australian government in its shameful and deadly policy of turning asylum seekers away at sea and sending them to off-site detention facilities in Papua New Guinea.

Like Jacob Zuma, Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott seems to delight in being obtuse. Both men seem to share an appreciation for misogyny. Zuma has quipped that women are not complete without children, and Abbott was famously dressed down by the last Prime Minister of the country Julia Gillard, who reminded Australians that Abbott had once suggested that men may be “by physiology or temperament more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command”.

The political parties Abbott and Zuma lead – the Liberal Party and the African National Congress respectively – are ostensibly on different ends of the ideological spectrum. Despite this they have remarkably similar tactical approaches to governing. In power, both parties have routinely ignored ethical considerations, choosing instead to find loopholes and technicalities in the law that allow them to evade their moral responsibilities.

Yet neither man nor his party can be easily dismissed. Zuma is immensely popular. He is the occupant of a home that is worth several hundreds of millions of rands, and yet he has managed to cultivate a down-to-earth demeanour. Zuma’s persona as an everyman makes him approachable, even as his strongman tactics show that he is a ruthless political operator.

Similarly, Abbott’s colourful colloquialisms, including his threat to grab Russian leader Vladimir Putin by the “shirtfront” at the G20 Summit at the end of last year, have seen a recent surge in his popularity. While neither man is especially popular, both are skilled populists.

In the arena of the political influence both men are also masterful. With the help of powerful patronage networks in the media, Zuma has been able to win the hearts and minds of many South Africans who are distrustful of opposition forces. By the same token, Abbott has a close and well-documented relationship with Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp group has played a dreadful role in this country.

In Australia, as in South Africa, politicians have opted to either embrace xenophobic attitudes or to deny their very existence. In South Africa, the insistence that the attacks on foreigners are not xenophobic is linked to our country’s preoccupation with maintaining a positive global image. Fearful that these incidents will lead to negative reporting, officials have been arguing that there really is no problem.

In denying that the violence is rooted in anti-foreigner sentiment, the state makes it difficult for communities to prevent future attacks. If the state cannot accept that there is a problem, it will not be able to carry out the widespread protection and education efforts needed.

The same is true in Australia, where the Human Rights Commission has argued that the federal government is flouting international law and that this policy is an embarrassment. The response of officials has been to deny that it has used “improper force” on detainees or asylum seekers.

Australia and South Africa also share a number of other traits: Both countries are affluent in relation to the regions in which they are situated. Both nations have well-developed myths of exceptionalism that make them outwardly oriented and yet also oddly insular. Both countries appear to have global outlooks, but upon closer inspection simply mimic Western European and American worldviews.

If politicians are the products of the societies they serve, then South Africa and Australia are more similar than many on either side of the Indian Ocean care to admit. With their painful racial histories, their changing relationships to the regions in which they are located, and the complex dynamics they are cultivating with migrants, both are in need of need of far better national leaders.

More importantly, South Africans and Australians are not alone in their travails. Far too many societies are currently suffering from the toxic mix of xenophobic sentiment and state-sanctioned violence. Wherever these factors are at play, voting publics must push back. If they don’t, the politics of fear will continue to dominate local politics. DM


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