When talking about and grappling with racism, whether individual, institutional or structural, we South Africans should not forget that we were all affected by the racist apartheid system. What I mean by this is that, contrary to popular opinion among black South Africans that they cannot be racist, we all lived through the racist system and our views, opinions and indeed attitudes were shaped by racism.
The small section of our black communities that found their way across the borders during the dark days of apartheid and went into exile lived among fellow Africans for a number of years. Their attitudes and experiences have shaped them and certainly resulted in them having a more profound appreciation for our fellow African men and women. Their generosity and empathy with our struggles at the time are not forgotten. In addition, many black South Africans have grown up among Africans from our neighbouring countries of Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, due to the migrant slave labour system over the years. The borders we see today have not been there for very long. We share a common ancestry.
This common African identity and empathy is not the experience of the majority of our black citizens though. What has changed and why are there so many xenophobic attacks of late? And why do the xenophobic attacks manifest along racial lines?
Let us first unpack a little about institutional racism, prejudice and discrimination.
According to Professor Vernellia Randall in a paper titled Speaking Truth to Power, institutional racism must be understood as an interaction between prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice, she states, is an attitude that is based on limited information or stereotypes. While prejudice is usually negative, it can also be positive, she contends. No one is completely free of prejudices, although they may not have any significant prejudice against a particular group.
Oppression, she says, is a systemic subjugation of a social group by another social group with access to power. She goes on to say that power is the ability to control access to resources, the ability to influence others, and access to decision-makers. Discrimination on the other hand is behaviour, intentional or not, which negatively treats a person or group of people based on their racial origins. In this context of racism, power is a necessary precondition for discrimination.
Professor Randall further states that racism depends on the ability to give or withhold social benefits, facilities, services, opportunities etc, from someone who is entitled to them, and is denied on the basis of race, colour or national origin. She concludes that the source of power can be formal or informal, legal or illegal, and is not limited to traditional concepts of power.
Institutional racism is not always done knowingly and intentionally: the power of it lies exactly in its ability to make itself invisible. This allows its beneficiaries to deny its existence (and genuinely believe in its absence) while benefiting from it. I contend that most black South Africans are prejudiced against other groups on the basis of material economic conditions. Black South Africans (like the right-wing conservatives in the USA and UK who voted for Trump, or supported Brexit) remain racist in their attitudes towards fellow Africans because of their own precarious position in society.
It is easy to blame the other – our fellow Africans – and label them as criminals, claim they are people who are taking jobs away from us locals and of course the stupidest claim of them all: they are here taking our women from us. This is the talk in our townships when referring to black African foreigners. I emphasise black African foreigners, as our xenophobia has a racist streak. Fellow white foreigners clearly don’t fall into the category of xenophobic attacks. White foreigners are not being attacked by my fellow South Africans. So, they are clearly okay and indeed welcome to our shores. The fact that some white foreigners, like Palazzolo and Radovan Krejcir, being white convicted criminals of organised crime in Mzansi, are not cited is a cause of concern.
In addition, I contend that this very racist xenophobia I call out in my fellow black South Africans is itself fuelled by racist attitudes of some of our white South Africans. In the hospitality and fast-food sectors of our society, we are told that the reason why most of these establishments employ black African foreigners is because they are more proficient in the English language, that they are better educated. Training and learning on the job is easy and simplified. Foreign Africans are hard workers is the common refrain. In effect, these employers are saying that black South Africans are not proficient in the English language, that they are not well educated, are lazy and are therefore a burden on them as employees.
I think the truth of this matter is more sinister on the part of most white employers, however. How difficult can it be to bring a patron a coffee or a plate of food, or indeed to welcome patrons to this or that hotel or lodge? I think the issue is really that black South Africans know their rights in our new democracy. They know that they cannot be exploited in the workplace anymore. They know that they cannot be threatened with Home Affairs, with illegal papers and visas. They know that they cannot, and will not, work for slave labour compensation.
As black South Africans they are acutely aware that they can unionise by law, that the country has a minimum wage. Yes, they may have a sense of entitlement, but they know that they too must be treated with respect and dignity.
All of which white employers don’t have to contend with if they employ black African foreigners.
The same issues are at play in the USA and UK. For it is simply not possible for another person “to steal a job”. The only possibility is that an employer chooses to employ someone other than me – the struggling black South African. So while I note with concern the racist and xenophobic approaches of my fellow black South Africans, I do not exonerate my fellow white South African who has chosen to employ foreign nationals (often illegally) from their role. These racists’ attitudes and illegal labour practices contribute to the hatred portrayed by fellow black South Africans towards our foreign brothers and sisters by not wanting to employ black South Africans.
So, having apportioned blame to both parts of our beloved Mzanzi – the black and poor, and rich and white, let me now dwell a little on the matter of entitlement on the part of all South Africans post-apartheid.
Why have black African foreigners long moved on from relying on their respective governments to shape their own future? Ghanaians in the 1960s or Kenyans or Nigerians, locals in these countries, have long come to the inescapable conclusion that their governments can only do so much for them.
Among our northern neighbours and further up the continent, there is a clear acceptance that it is up to me, myself and I to take control of my own destiny. The shiny energy and expectation following uhuru has long dwindled into the reality of daily life and survival. It should therefore come as no surprise that the African national in these countries has personal agency. They are such talented entrepreneurs, fast learners and indeed hard workers.
Remember, the African foreign national who left their respective countries for the bright lights of Gauteng were leaving famine, war, poverty or persecution or lack of economic prospects. They made it all the way to the most southern tip of Africa.
Those who arrived here are without a doubt resilient, intelligent and competent in comparison to their fellow countrymen. Intelligent, because they could recognise their unacceptable situation, had to make plans to get out of there, which requires serious logistics and putting a plan in place to execute this departure. In some cases it can take years in the making to save money for the impending trip. On arriving in South Africa, they have to fit in, find shelter, find a job and ensure they can send money back to their families back at home. Our fellow black South Africans are contending with people who have managed this journey and had the wherewithall to make it to our Mzanzi. They don’t have a sense of entitlement; they are driven by their survival instincts.
In the face of this competition – for decent work, for housing – many of our South Africans seems to just sit back and demand service delivery, demand free higher education, demand more social grants, demand free basic services.
In fact, free, full stop!
Is this just myth or is this the new South African way?
South Africans put out their hands for handouts, while foreign nationals put up their hands for a job?
I am reminded of our 10 years of democracy celebration in Pretoria when the eminent scholar, Ali Mazrui, reminded us as South Africans of two important things. One was the fact that we are all Africans on this our continent, whether the Muslims/Arabs in the North or the more dark-skinned Africans in sub-Saharan Africa, and also regardless of language, culture, religion or creed. The second important matter he said to us South Africans was to be aware of the “four Vs”, post-colonialism.
He says we were the Victims under the heinous apartheid system, we then became the Victors after a long struggle both at home and abroad, we are currently the Vanguard executing the much needed socio-economic transformation project in South Africa for the poor, and he concludes by saying let’s hope that you will not become the Villain, as is so easily observed in other African countries post-colonialism or independence.
The question we must ask ourselves as black and white South Africans is: Are we now the villains? Is our South African identity one of shunning, attacking and indeed the lowest form of being inhumane, killing our fellow black African foreigners? I truly hope not.
It is at times like these that the effects of an ANC facing a credibility crisis, and a leadership that is tarnished and mistrusted, are most sorely felt. The response of our government in this regard also speaks volumes. Since the first attacks occurred as Mbeki was unceremoniously leaving high office to the most recent anti-foreigners march in Tswane, our capital city, we have not seen any effective plans or even rousing speaches condemning the process, and uniting the country in its common opposition to this kind of behaviour. Regular interaction with the various civil society organisations representing foreigners in our countries is essential. A regional SADC response is also required. More practical engagements are needed between ourselves, our neighbours and the immigrants – both legal and illegal – in our midst. Our common African identity needs to be further explored by all of us.
To the South African government and all other civil society in Mzansi, I appeal to you to step up and be more proactive with regards to such totally unacceptable behaviour and attitudes. A strong collective condemnation of racist, xenophobic events is urgently required. We will suffer the consequences by continuing to put our heads in the sand. DM
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Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is an active fellow of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflections (MISTRA) and is a trustee for the Kgalema Mothlante Foundation
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