Let's Think

Half a job on xenophobia not good enough

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Last week the army was sent into xenophobia-hit townships, President Jacob Zuma will be holding stakeholder meetings on migration policy and everyone, from the most localised NGO to the Zulu king, condemned xenophobic violence. Is it good enough?

We think the answer is a very clear “No”. At best, it is half a job.

Yes, everything possible should be done to suppress xenophobic violence when it breaks out in order to save lives and restore physical order. And yes, it is imperative that leaders at all levels and formations in society should condemn the violence, call for calm and appeal to people’s moral responsibilities.

But still missing, are signs of holistic programmes to ensure follow-through on good intentions and, most importantly, to get the message across that acts of xenophobia will not be tolerated. At the same time the root causes of this scourge should be dealt with.

Prosecuting perpetrators

Nothing illustrates the apparent ambivalence of South African authorities better than our track record in taking perpetrators to court and sending them to jail.

The record of what has happened - in fact not happened - after the wave of xenophobic violence in 2008, tells the story.

During the 2008 violence, according to public records, at least 62 people lost their lives (some were straightforwardly murdered), thousands of foreigners were displaced, hundreds of shops looted and some burned down. Many of these incidents were recorded on camera.

To date there has not been a single successful prosecution of anyone involved in the events of 2008. Perpetrators of the violence, despite many initial arrests, are literally allowed to get away with murder.

Again, this time round, a good number of people have been taken into custody. The State Security Minister, David Mahlobo, at a peace march in Durban two weekends ago, went on record to say that government is working to bring “instigators” to book.

Against the history of what happened after the 2008 violence, such undertakings ring hollow. Deeds, not words, will bring the message across that violent acts of xenophobia are not acceptable.

Even in this statement of Minister Mahlobo there are signs of the ambivalence and rationalisation with which government and others in leadership positions approach the problem. In maybe less direct language than used by King Goodwill Zwelithini the weekend before last, he blamed the violence on a ‘third force’, saying “We know, that there are instigators in those communities ...”

The king went so far as to suggest that the blame lies with the media, in a classical example of blaming the messenger instead of addressing the problem and accepting at least some responsibility for what, at best, were ill-considered remarks in the run-up to the present wave of violence.

This thread of dishing out blame to deflect attention from government’s failure to deal with the problem runs wide. For example, Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, also blamed the present outbreak of xenophobic violence on a “third force”, (and by implication on the victims of those attacks) bent on destroying the country’s international image by giving youths drugs and weapons and “instructing” them to loot foreign-owned shops.

Illness with a history

This illness of good intentions and words remaining just that and not translated into practical programmes and deeds, anchored in a psychology of ambivalence, has a history wider than just the lack of prosecutions.

In the immediate wake of the 2008 violence there were the assurances of “never again” by then president Thabo Mbeki. But the violence never stopped and sporadic incidents continued.

This time round, President Jacob Zuma announced that he will host a series of meetings with stakeholders. One would have hoped that those meetings will focus on a holistic approach to deal with the underlying problems.

Instead, again implying that the real problem lies with the victimised immigrants, the meetings will be aimed at discussing the country’s migration policy and how various sectors can work with government to promote orderly migration and good relations between citizens and other nationals.

Why have this not happened since the bitter experience a long seven years ago?

Again, history tends to make one cynical about the results that can be expected from these narrowly focused exercises.

Way back in 2012 President Zuma, at a “social dialogue meeting”, following the violent confrontation at Marikana which cost more than 40 lives, spoke about the need for a “new social contract” in the country.

Indications then, and still, are that socio-economic factors lie at the heart of what had happened at Marikana, as they do in the case of the xenophobic violence.

It is now almost a month since the Farlam Commission’s report into what had happened at Marikana has been handed to President Zuma. South Africans are waiting anxiously for the content of that report to be released.

That might be the spark the country needs to get going a truly inclusive and holistic programme for socio-economic reconstruction of our society.

by Piet Coetzer

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