Xenophobia Watch – opinion

The heavy toll of neglecting to deal with xenophobia

Thabo Mbeki should share some of the blame
Thabo-Mbeki.jpg

Going back to the days of then president Thabo Mbeki, the South African government just has not taken the problem of xenophobia seriously enough – with tragic consequences.

Paging through the archives of the Intelligence Bulletin and numerous other reports, it becomes clear that the warnings since 2008 on the consequences of xenophobia, if left unattended, have sadly been proved correct.

It leaves one with a strong sense of despondency and frustration.

Who is to blame?

It is obvious that the early-warning systems recommended after the 2008 xenophobic attacks, which left 62 people dead, more than 17 000 displaced, and properties worth millions of rands looted and destroyed, are not working or have simply not been implemented.

As one journalist wrote: “South Africa put the xenophobic attacks in a box, put on the lid, and moved on. But the problem has been bubbling on, percolating in townships and informal settlements across the country and we would be fools to think otherwise.”

In an excellent article by Ozias Tungwarara, Xenophobia in SA, a lack of visionary leadership, he quotes various studies conducted in recent years, all referring to the danger of xenophobia becoming a real and incapacitating problem in South Africa in the absence of proper and visionary leadership.  

After the xenophobia of 2008 the government remained reluctant to acknowledge the truth and tried to distract attention by blaming the violence against foreigners on criminality – as is still the case.

Former president Thabo Mbeki was leading from the front, claiming that those who dared talk of xenophobia were, “trying to explain naked criminality by cloaking it in the garb of xenophobia ... I will not hesitate to assert that my people are not diseased by the terrible affliction of xenophobia.” 

 How wrong he was.

 The result of this ‘head in the sand’ approach is the current spate of violence against foreigners spreading across the country with the epicenters in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

Inexplicably, the Zuma administration is still singing from the same hymn sheet and while central Johannesburg was being turned into a battlefield, Gauteng’s premier David Makhura declared, “What we have seen happening is not xenophobia, it is criminality ...”  

Admittedly, the issue is extremely complex and there are many underlying socio-economic factors. Plain criminality does play a major role. However, the fact remains: the attacks on foreigners are xenophobic and the main problem rests with the government, which remains in denial. To coin new phrases like ‘Afrophobia’ and ‘African self-hate’ brings the country no closer to a lasting solution. 

The irony of Lindiwe Zulu, Minister of Small Business Development, saying (in a statement that gained a significant degree of notoriety) that foreign business owners should “... understand that they are here as a courtesy” and thus “cannot barricade themselves in and not share their practices with local business owners” is glaring. It is the success of foreigners and not their alleged illicit behaviour that is at fault.

A Daily Maverick article is spot-on when it says, “And this is precisely why it will take more than the deployment of police to arrest the problem of prejudice and attacks on foreign nationals. For as long as government avoids calling it what it is it shuts down the dialogue and ability to properly confront the problem of xenophobia.”

The deliberate attempts at avoidance by government has a similar ring to it as the sickening debate at the UN in 1994 on what constitutes genocide while it was happening in front of their eyes in Rwanda.

Too little too late

Criticism is also justified that the government is doing too little too late – despite frantic meetings by ministers with ambassadors to express regret over the attacks and brief them on actions to protect their citizens, as well as valiant attempts by the police and the hastily convened intra-departmental task force.

For President Zuma to express condemnation of the violence, calling it a “violation" of South Africa's values in the confines of the National Assembly is not good enough. As one daily newspaper lamented in an editorial, “Until President Jacob Zuma appears on national television and radio and speaks to South Africans, press statements from his office will remain merely that – press statements. It should not be difficult for Zuma to stand up and confront the crisis decisively and directly – and stop the bodies piling up.”

South Africa’s international image is taking a devastating hammering and a backlash of retaliation is already underway that is going to be very expensive, both financially and in terms of South Africa’s reputation regarding the values of and respect for human rights.

The Rainbow Nation that served as example of acceptance, accommodation and tolerance, sadly, exists no more.

Dennis Bloem of Cope was spot-on when he said, “The damage that these attacks ... cause to the image of SA is immeasurable and irreparable. The enormous legacy of Nelson Mandela is being eroded. The hard work he undertook to reintegrate us with African and world communities is being shattered by the xenophobic attacks we are witnessing. The dream of African Renaissance lies in ruins.”

Internationally, criticism is coming thick and fast.

One of the first to respond was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), expressing deep concern for “the continued outbreaks of xenophobia that have been occurring around the country”, followed by the African Union (AU) calling on the South African government to stop the xenophobic attacks, ironically on the eve of Africa Month.

Impact in Africa

Predictions that the xenophobic violence will dent the image of South African corporations in the rest of Africa and could lead to reprisals, are becoming true.

South African workers of companies like Sasol had to be evacuated from Mozambique amid reports of vehicles carrying goods there being attacked, the drivers fearing for their lives.

Kenya and Malawi have started repatriating citizens, with the latter warning that it will not stand by idly while Malawian citizens are attacked.

In Harare, Zimbabwe, people protested at the South African High Commission only days after president Mugabe received a hero’s welcome in South Africa, despite being responsible for the many Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa now being victimised.

Reports of growing resentment and threats of closure against South African businesses in Nigeria are making news headlines. Representatives of the All Progressive Congress (APC) party of newly elected Nigerian President Buhari, handed an ultimatum to the South African High Commission, demanding that the South African government brings an end to the violence against foreigners within 24 hours.

Zambia’s president has requested an urgent meeting with President Zuma, with similar actions sure to follow in the coming days and weeks.

Unconfirmed reports even referred to Boko Haram making demands with threats against South Africans working in Nigeria, Niger and Chad. This is, although unconfirmed, chilling against the backdrop of threats by some of those affected by the xenophobic violence to resort to guerrilla warfare to defend themselves, and referring to Boko Haram as their role model.

The present xenophobic violence is a grim confirmation that the South African government has failed in its responsibility to deal adequately with one of the most testing problems in the country and its underlying reasons, despite numerous warning and appeals.

The message is clear – the Zuma government is presently in power, but not in control. 

by Garth Cilliers

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