“What a stupid question,” I hear the pundits scoff. “Anyone that picked up this week’s Sunday Times would have seen the photos of those three barbaric savages that beat and knifed Mozambican Emmanuel Sithole to death; they killed him.” As tragic as Sithole’s demise was in the early hours of Saturday morning, the series of visceral images by James Oatway, on the front page of the newspaper, punched South Africa in the face with a fistful of reality.
Xenophobic violence is no longer something to be condemned on radio. It is no longer something hidden from money and concealed in the dark corners of our townships. It is real, tragic and shameful. Exactly the type of thing that should shock this country into action, the type of thing that should bring this rubbish to an end, because for once there is no justification. We all watched as an okapi blade tore through a man’s heart and he bled out. There was a nation as witnesses to his martyrdom.
So returning to our original question of who killed Emmanuel, Oatway was most certainly not complicit in his murder. The photographer has faced criticism, with parallels being drawn between him and Kevin Carter – much, too, like Greg Marinovich, photography Pulitzer Prize winner and member of “The Bang-Bang Club”. [Disclosure: Greg Marinovich writes for Daily Maverick.] Like Carter, Oatway is now haunted with accusations that he snapped away as a man’s life was snuffed out, that he attained his fame at the cost of another’s life. But Oatway rushed Sithole to Alexandra Day Clinic, where there was no doctor in attendance and despite the nurses’ best efforts; Oatway had to rush Sithole to Edenvale Hospital, where a hospital porter exercised his medical prowess and made the initial, flippant pronouncement of Sithole’s death, incorrectly.
If Carter had not captured that iconic photo of the looming vulture, seemingly stalking a starving baby girl, the reality of the famine in Sudan, more than two decades ago, would in all likelihood have gone unnoticed. Similarly, despite all the reports around the xenophobic violence that have rocked South Africa in the last two weeks, we would have been singing the same old tired song around xenophobia, the same old song we sang in 2008 and now seemingly have forgotten. Now, after seeing Sithole and – vicariously – the fate of so many other anonymous foreign nationals, a human face and story has been attached to the darkest evil committed by ordinary South Africans against other people. So if anyone emerges as a hero in this tragedy, it is Oatway, he who documented the attack against Sithole and tried to save his life.
In law, a crime can be committed both through omission and commission. Sithole’s three attackers are an easy target; they committed an act of murder and we have the photographic evidence, but what of the rest of the people in the series of photos, those that stood at the periphery of the scene, those that just looked on passively, maybe fear-stricken, but inactive? If Oatway had not taken the photos, and instead intervened and tried to stop the attack, both he and Sithole may have lost their lives in Alexandra that morning.
The same argument applies to any one of the people who stood by and watched; they too had lives they wanted to preserve, they too had families they wanted to return to and, like anyone else, they were deeply scarred and traumatised by witnessing a murder as the crisp, early morning breeze blew. But they could have called the police or emergency services, they could have assisted in getting Sithole to the Day Clinic that was supposedly a hundred metres away from the pile of rubbish where he laid bleeding from the gash in his chest.
King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu called an imbizo on Monday 20 April, to calm tempers and dispel the notion that he had set the nation ablaze with xenophobic utterances that have been ascribed as an incitement to violence and hate speech. Again he blamed the media for misinterpreting his words, but this time he is quoted as saying: “I’ve called this imbizo to initiate a war, a real war against the violence directed at foreign nationals.” Of course we were reminded of language most thought was abandoned in the early 90s: “There’s a third force that we must look at.” But smoking the peace pipe now and blaming the boogeymen for the xenophobic violence aside, what role did the Zulu monarch have to play in all this?
The fan had already flung the shit across the walls, ceiling and floor, because the good king in prior weeks had made irresponsible statements about crime, unemployment and foreigners: “We are requesting those who come from outside to please go back to their countries.” But the king sticks to his story: it was not he, as the most renowned and influential traditional leader, that sparked the mess by fuelling people’s anger, it was the good old media’s fault: “You journalists are causing chaos… The way you report in your newspapers…?you misinterpret and distort my words to sell your newspapers.”
Despite his insistence that it was the media’s distortion of his words, those that initiated the xenophobic violence in Durban were quoted as saying: “We’re going to hit you on Monday. The king says you kwekweres must go.”
Presumably the media’s distortion is what prompted Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba to say: “Leaders in our country have a responsibility to use their words to build and not to destroy. We need to take a very firm view about uttering statements which could result in violence, physical attacks on others and a loss of life or damage to property.” But Zwelithini is king of the governing party’s powerbase, and in an effort to protect essential votes within party structures and at national elections, Gigaba has reportedly had to meet the king to apologise.
As custodians of democracy, the Constitution and basic human rights, government did not only fail to address the king directly, but they themselves have been making irresponsible statements of their own. Earlier in the year, when we saw xenophobic violence spreading through Soweto, Kagiso and many other townships, Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu said that “[f]oreigners need to understand that they are here as a courtesy and our priority is to the people of this country first and foremost… They cannot barricade themselves in and not share their practices with local business owners”.
Minister of Water and Sanitation, Nomvula Mokonyane, added her voice to the anti-foreigner sentiments through a Facebook post: “[a]lmost every second outlet (spaza) or even former general dealer shops are run by people of Somali or Pakistan origin…I am not xenophobic, fellow comrades and friends, but this is a recipe for disaster.”
So if our leaders themselves are xenophobes – generally if you have to prefix a statement that you are not sexist, racist or xenophobic, chances are that you are – how the hell do we expect people like those who bludgeoned and stabbed Sithole to change their attitudes? With a wealth of information around the social and economic impact of foreign nationals, boycotts of South African services and products across the continent and condemnation at the exposure of our dark-side going ignored, nothing has changed since the initial mass xenophobic violence of 2008 – and things are unlikely to change in the near future.
Pseudo-intellectualised debates as to whether these attacks are xenophobic, Afrophobic or criminal in nature have detracted from significant action. For those pundits that insist on calling this violence Afrophobic, because of their ‘unique’ observation that only black foreign nationals are subjected to these attacks as opposed to their white counterparts, this view is short-sighted, to say the least. Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian and Chinese nationals who are subjected to violence, threats of violence, hate speech; whose businesses are burnt and looted; are not African, but they are victims too – they are foreign nationals and are equally victimised, so it is xenophobia, stupid!
When these ‘intellectuals’ refuse to call a spade xenophobia, they, too, like those in power, relegate the issue to highfalutin, academic debate that fails to address the real issue at hand: the loss human life and livelihood.
We have seen this coming a long way off – the anger and hate toward immigrants, the frustration of poverty and no real economic progress. Instead of real action, we, like those who omitted to act in an effort to save Sithole’s life, stood by and watched. Hopefully Sithole’s death is the crescendo in this tragic melody; hopefully this is where it ends. But even so, what happens after this? DM
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Gushwell F. Brooks is an LLB graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand. He did not go on to become an attorney, but much rather entered the corporate rat race. After slaving away for years, he found his new life as a talk show host for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk.
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