Opinionista Brad Cibane 20 April 2015

Xenophobic attacks: South Africa can no longer hide behind the shame

It has not even been a decade since the last shocking wave of xenophobic violence ripped the country apart. Then, government apologised profusely for the pain and suffering that had been caused on our shores. But those words ring hollow when today’s government fails to step in and adequately take responsibility. Have we forgotten so soon?

I was a first-year law student when the xenophobic attacks flared up in May 2008. Sixty-two people lost their lives, most of them stoned, hacked or burned to death.

Having grown up in rural KwaZulu-Natal, I knew our nation’s disdain for immigrants. However, I couldn’t grasp the savagery of the attacks. I could not understand how our Constitution and our laws failed so miserably to protect the victims.

The “Burning Man” image haunted me. Ernesto Alfabeto was stoned and set alight; he kneeled on the floor, screaming and burning alive.

I wondered about the person behind the lens: why he or she did not try to put out the scorching flames. What about the police officers? They gathered around the burning man; they were idle and smiling.

According to reports, his family in Mozambique is still waiting for justice.

I recall the xenophobic attack forums. “I walked barefoot for six months from Ethiopia to South Africa. I slept in bushes and ate wild animals,” said one immigrant. On arrival in South Africa, he lived on the streets, worked for pennies as a parking attendant, put himself through gruelling bachelor’s and master’s degrees; he was then a PhD candidate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Mandela’s promise of a better life for all sustained him on his journey. It made sense for him to travel to South Africa. When things were tough here at home, Mandela travelled to Ethiopia to receive military training. He later wrote, “I felt I would be visiting my own genesis, unearthing the roots of what made me an African.”

I recall the wrenching shame I felt listening to the immigrants’ anger, fear and nakedness. They were being hunted with machetes like wild animals. All we had to offer were empty apologies, and equally empty promises.

Former president Thabo Mbeki wrote in the 2008: “[We] have gathered here today with [our] heads bowed in shame because it has seemed that what happened in our country in May betrayed the dreams of many generations, including our own.” He blurted a fleeting apology, “We have gathered here today to convey to all Africans everywhere, to all African nations, severally and collectively, to our own people, and to the families of people who were murdered, our sincere condolences, and our heartfelt apologies that Africans in our country committed unpardonable crimes against other Africans.”

In January this year, less than seven years after the 2008 attacks, another spate of xenophobic violence flared up in Soweto. I expected the government to scram quickly into action. I recalled Mbeki’s promise, “We will do everything possible and necessary to ensure that we have no need in future to proffer this humble apology, which is inspired by genuine remorse.” I hoped that the Burning Man still haunted our government.

However, instead of springing into action, leaders scurried behind bland condemnations and dubious justifications. One leader even fuelled the fire by demanding: “We must scratch the lice. Let us remove the fleas and leave them in the sun to jump away, […] we beg that all foreigners must pack their bags and leave.” (My translation)

Less than a month after the call to “remove the fleas,” hundreds of immigrants are displaced and attacks are spreading through the country. Six people have been killed — mimed, stoned or burned to death — and tens of others injured.

As South Africans we no longer have the right to hang our heads in shame. Immigrants were attacked during “Operation Buyelekhaya” (operation go home) in 1998; again in 2000, 2004; 47 Somalis were killed in 2006 and 41 were killed in 2008. We no longer have the right to shed fraudulent tears. We need to act to protect our values and our democracy.

To act we must have some sense of the causes of the attacks. Economists have attributed the attacks to a failure of economic policy, specifically the “inability of the economy to be able to grow and generate jobs”.  According to Renaissance Capital’s Thabi Leoka, “inequality and social issues, lack of jobs, and given that our high unemployment rate is a problem, it does point to the lack of policy.”

Economic policy is only one link in the causal chain. Another link is our nation’s disdain for immigrants. Human Rights Watch warned as far back as 1998: “South Africa’s public culture has become increasingly xenophobic, and politicians often make inflammatory statements that the ‘deluge’ of migrants is responsible for the current crime wave, rising unemployment, or even the spread of diseases.”

Xenophobia is pervasive in all segments of our society. According to Jonathan Crush and Wade Pendleton, “The poor and the rich, the employed and the unemployed, the male and the female, the black and the white, the conservative and the radical, all express remarkably similar attitudes.”

Gareth Newham and David Bruce note that, “[immigrants] are generally blamed for problems such as unemployment and crime, but also because of their marginal and vulnerable status; members of the SAPS of all races frequently target black legal and illegal immigrants, for harassment.” A study by Themba Masuku found that 87% of police officers believe that illegal immigrants are involved in crime.

The final link is criminal opportunity. A poor and uncoordinated response by the police permitted the attacks to gain momentum. It should puzzle us that our government has the capacity to mobilise police to protect mines or to rally “white shirts” to evict disorderly parliamentarians, but fails to protect the lives of immigrants.

Further, South Africans suffer from a destructive exceptionalism, which explains the othering and lack of compassion for African immigrants. You often hear that, “South Africa is different from the rest of Africa.” Some people even dub South Africa “the North America of Africa”.  Neither sentiment is borne by facts, which is frustrating for some people. They get frustrated when they see African immigrants doing well because South Africans are supposedly “better than them”.

As regards the response, we need a comprehensive and coordinated response to prevent further violence. The police service, the National Prosecuting Authority and the courts must guarantee that swift action against perpetrators. Government must provide shelter, food aid and other essential services to displaced people.  

Secondly, we need also to pay reparations to the immigrants who lost life, limb and property during the attacks. South Africa is by no means a rich country, but reparations are necessary to restore our status as a nation founded on constitutional values and human rights.

In the long term, South Africa needs urgently to address youth unemployment problem. Sixty-three percent of the youth in South Africa is unemployed. According to one report: “Of the 10.2 million individuals aged between 15 to 24 years, one-third are not in employment, education or training.” Moreover, “Roughly 30 percent of male youth and 36 percent of female youth are […] disconnected from both the labour market and opportunities that promote future employability.” An overwhelmingly large segment of the youth is idle, without hope of a better life.

It is these youths who see looting as an opportunity for self-enrichment. This is a dire situation and the government must act with urgency. One possible solution is to provide the youth with free education and skills training. Further, the Youth Wage Subsidy programme must be strengthened to ensure that everyone who seeks employment gets access to the economy, even if it is at a cost to the government. DM


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