Opinionista Sebastian Van As 12 September 2019

As long as the politicians remain complicit, xenophobia and Afrophobia will continue

Clearly, immigrants are not only stereotyped in the media, but they are also branded as potential criminals, drug smugglers and murderers by politicians and unreliable figures are bandied around Parliament.

We are all aware that South Africa is a very violent society. Every year approximately 18,000 people are murdered, and approximately 55,000 people sexually abused or raped. Though the media has recently provided the impression that there is a new crime wave, violence and crime are not new to this country with its long history of slavery, oppression, colonialism and apartheid.

During the apartheid era, black Africans were generally seen as a major threat to society by the relatively small group of whites. According to Antjie Krog, listening to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, the feeling grows that the apartheid struggle was not really between racist, supremacist whites and brave, organised fighters, but rather between brutal white police and innocent black people.

The mechanism of scapegoating certain people and their subsequent expulsion from society has been practiced by a large number of societies, with usually detrimental effects to the group being scapegoated. When the pestilence struck France in 1349, people reacted by accusing Jews of poisoning the water sources and proceeded to massacre them. Goebbels and Hitler also accused Jews of numerous ills; according to the two Nazis, Jews were the main threat to German society and had to be dispossessed, expelled and later even exterminated.

Anyone who was politically opposed to the communist regime in the USSR was identified as “insane” (any right-thinking person would, of course, admire and adopt the communistic system) and were locked up in institutions for patients with severe psychiatric disorders. In the post-Second World War United States, anyone with possible communist alliances, family, friends or even acquaintances was tarnished as dangerous to society and expelled from social life and any official job or institution.

In South Africa, there has been a strong tendency to deal with possible threats with this mechanism of scapegoating. In the late 1990s, the era where both HIV/Aids and sexual violence and rape were starting to feature dominantly in the South African press and media, it was all too easy for the South African public to link these two. Child rapists were identified as evil carriers of the HIV virus. It was thought that these people turned to “witch doctors” who then prescribed the treatment of sexual contact with a child or non-sexually active elderly woman to be cured from their disease.

Crime and violence are generally regarded as being performed by ugly, unknown strangers. We guard ourselves behind high walls, electric fences and require guns to defend ourselves in time of possible attacks. However, evidence shows that a huge proportion of violent crimes is committed by friends and family (80%-90%) and not by unknown strangers.

The reality is that a significant component of crime is associated with alcohol and drugs, which are tolerated to a large extent in our society. About 70% of all trauma is closely linked to alcohol and drugs. The ideal place for many of us to discuss crime is around the braai, beer in hand. We talk about how bad the crime is and afterwards we drive our cars home, intoxicated and careless.

Recently, many xenophobic attacks have taken place in South Africa. Again, this is not a new phenomenon. Xenophobia, in the greater context, may be an adverse effect of nation-building. Since 1990, immigrants, especially black Africans, have had a very hard time living in South Africa. Foreigners have endured and suffered numerous attacks over the last two decades.

The hundreds of Somali nationals who died as a result of xenophobic attacks over the past decade represent only the tip of the iceberg; numerous foreigners have been attacked, assaulted, mutilated and murdered.

All this occurs while it is a well-researched and known fact that foreigners, even illegal ones, contribute positively to an economy.

According to a study by Hussein Solomon and Hitomi Kosaka, one of the most striking features of xenophobia in South Africa is that it appears to have taken on a primarily racial form. It seems to be directed at especially black migrants, from elsewhere on the continent, as opposed to, for example, Europeans or Americans, who are, to a certain extent practically welcomed with open arms. This racially selective xenophobia is exemplified by the fact that many of those in leadership positions are of “foreign” origin, suggesting exclusion is not simply directed against “foreigners” but against those who seem to correspond to stereotypes of the stranger, especially that from Africa.

Clearly, immigrants are not only stereotyped in the media, they are branded as potential criminals, drug smugglers and murderers by politicians and unreliable figures are bandied around Parliament. The government has actively attempted to reduce the number of immigrants through repressive measures, such as the Immigration Act 2002 that gave police and immigration officers powers to stop anyone and ask them to prove their immigration status.

The government has not clearly acknowledged foreigners and fails to create awareness about South Africa’s national obligations. The government has typically been in denial of xenophobia, and blamed crime, job poaching and housing allowances for xenophobic attacks.

It is very sad indeed that in the past decade of State Capture, in which hundreds of billions of rand were looted from the state coffers, xenophobia has not been in the political limelight and has even been actively encouraged by high-profile politicians.

Adding insult to injury, poor service delivery, lax law enforcement and lack of formal structures to resolve grievances have created a desperate socio-economic climate, enabling and contributing to an ever-increasing hatred against African foreigners and leading to increasingly vicious vigilante attacks on them.

It is good that the ANC (and South Africa’s) president came out condemning the xenophobia last week, but he could have used stronger language. We really ought to fight against the hatred of foreign nationals in the same manner as we fought against racism, sexism and all forms of discrimination in the past.

From a psychological point of view, the mechanism of scapegoating may render a very temporarily (perceived) positive effect. But it is a very primitive, unjust and extremely dangerous method to deal with any problem.

Serious introspection is required by our society and its leaders in order to ascertain what value systems rule our present society and what messages we provide to each other. Blaming innocent foreigners only reveals our deficiencies even more. DM

Prof AB (Sebastian) van As is Head of the Trauma Unit at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town and Chair of ChildSafe South Africa. This article was written in his personal capacity.

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