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South Africa, say it loud and clear: NO to Xenophobia!

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South Africa, say it loud and clear: NO to Xenophobia!


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

I am in Brazil at present. People watching the headlines in the global media turn to me and ask, "How is this possible? You, the political miracle of tolerance and reconciliation?"

It is not an accusation but it hurts deep inside my soul that this is what we are now known for . 

Brazil is the melting pot of multiculturalism. No one here denies the violence of its past or the fact that eradicating poverty, unemployment and racism still remains a challenge in a country that has seen 300 years of slavery; the decimation of the indigenous population; the waves of immigration of tens of millions of Lebanese; Japanese; Germans; Dutch and more recently the poor pouring in from Paraguay, Haiti and other places. So why is Brazil not in the world headlines for xenophobia?

Today, Brazil is eighth largest economy in the world. With a population of over 180 million people its challenges are on a scale larger than ours in South Africa. Like us, it is seen as the ‘big brother’ of South America and a magnet for people seeking better opportunities and a pathway towards hope. 

Around me I am faced by a barrage of questions. Are South Africans THAT racist that they turn on fellow Africans who in the past have faced tremendous hardships supporting our struggle against Apartheid? Didn’t many freedom fighters live in exile in countries that were bombed by the apartheid regime in retaliation? How can a country led by the African National Congress (ANC) of the revered icon here, Nelson Mandela, countenance the xenophobic attacks on fellow Africans? Why is it only targeting black fellow Africans? 

I am at a loss. I have no words. Have we reached such a level of broken society that we turn on our own African brothers and sisters? Is our political leadership, and civil society, so dysfunctional that the signs of a failing state are obvious for all to see?

I look back on the last decade and see how the internecine battles within our political parties, especially in the ANC and Cosatu and the broader mass democratic movement have fractured the social cohesion and social capital we had built up in our fight against Apartheid. 

We are shocked at the xenophobia attacks that stain our democracy in South Africa today. Hate speech marks so many of our conversations about ‘kwerekwere’ or ‘foreigners’ that “take our jobs”, and “sleep with our women”, “bribe our state officials to get houses”. How often do we accuse foreigners as drug dealers and driving the crime syndicates in South Africa? Our political response is usually denial, reducing xenophobic violence to criminality and social delinquency. 

It has come back to haunt us. Because of these xenophobic attacks, not just in Brazil, but across the 54 countries of Africa and in much of the world, we are in danger of becoming a pariah again. 

No one in South Africa can deny today that we have a crisis. It is a political and leadership crisis. What we need is a powerful political response from all sane South Africans. We have to confront xenophobia squarely. But we lack the political will. 

In our past, the ANC has had a rich history of fighting racism, prejudice and tribalism. We have stood firm against demagogues who inflame internecine tensions. I remember us confronting faction fights in the union movement in the ’80s in one voice. Only a united powerful political response from government, media, faith-based leadership, unions and civil society can have a profound effect. 

There cannot be anything but zero tolerance of hate speech, irrespective of where it comes from. 

Then our conversations have to turn to a serious public debate on the underlying causes. One in four South Africans go to bed hungry and are unemployed and poor. One third lives on social grants. Corruption, incompetence and neglect resulted in a massive service delivery failure that robs so many of our people of their most basic constitutional rights: water, housing, quality education, health, toilets. 

One thing that worked in Brazil under the ‘Lula Moment’ was a decisive political leadership that was organised around the political goal of restoring human dignity and the right of every Brazilian family to three decent meals a day. As Lula said, “The biggest legacy of my presidency is not the programmes that took 30 million Brazilians out of absolute poverty and created 15 million jobs. We achieved by building accountability of the public institutions and real partnership with business, labour and civil society that brought hope to the people. We put the needs of the people first. Not ours.”

And still, competition over scarce resources in a highly unequal society does not fully explain our tendency to vilify and violently attack and loot homes and businesses of our African brothers and sisters.

I think Paul Verryn has put his finger on the pulse when he says in the Daily Maverick, “We’re basically sitting on a time bomb, I think,” he said on Wednesday. He spoke of “futureless people”, those with lost and little hope of making a decent income and living a decent life.

In such a climate, statements from leaders such as King Goodwill Zwelithini that apportion blame are a trigger… validate the deep disappointment many feel in the current South Africa, its failure to deliver…mand point to a scapegoat.

Therein lies the kernel of our leadership and governance crisis.

We know we cannot deny the haven to people fleeing the violence in their own countries because of war and strife or victimisation and oppression. Many of those countries were our homes during our struggle for freedom.

We have to return to the basics. We have to rebuild the robust civil society village by village, township by township, factory by factory, church by church, university by university, and wherever we are living, working, playing. We have to rebuild tolerance and the importance of preserving our cultural, religious, language and gender diversity. We have to speak in one voice against the venom of hate and prejudice on all fronts. But crucially, we need to start a serious work on rebuilding our own economy, our education, health and other fundamental services so that the millions of South Africans that are currently languishing in hopeless poverty are not such an easy prey for the prophets of xenophobic hate.

That road is hard. Burning, destroying, breaking down is always much easier than building. But if South Africa is to have a future, we need to start re-building lives, relationships, opportunities; we need to rebuild our tattered reputations globally. As I said, that road is hard. But it is the ONLY road.

South Africa, we cannot become the pariah of the world again. It would be the biggest betrayal of our political miracle. DM


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