Foreigners should not live in fear in our land

2015-01-25 15:01

Former president Thabo Mbeki made a promise to the world in July 2008.

He was speaking at a memorial service for 63 people killed in an orgy of xenophobic violence that had engulfed South Africa.

Offering an apology on behalf of South Africans, Mbeki decried the fact that “we allowed criminals in our midst to inflict terrible pain and damage to many in our society, including, and particularly, our foreign guests”.

“We will do everything possible and necessary to ensure that we have no need in future to proffer this humble apology, which is inspired by genuine remorse,” he said.

Since Mbeki made that promise, xenophobic attacks have continued unabated in South Africa.

From Cape Town to Port Elizabeth to Welkom to Johannesburg to the small town of Pienaar in Mpumalanga, mobs have unleashed terror on foreign nationals. Most of the victims have been foreigners trading in the townships. The causes have been varied – sometimes in retaliation for a foreigner mistreating locals, a rumour linking a foreigner to a crime and even romantic jealousy.

Service-delivery protests have been used as an excuse to loot foreign-owned shops. The trigger for this week’s flare-up in Soweto was the killing of a teenager by a Pakistani shop owner.

Academics, NGOs and politicians have tried to offer explanations for this, including unemployment, competition for resources and downright hatred.

Whatever the reasons, the fact that South Africans have not been able to live up to Mbeki’s promise shows there is a deep problem that needs more than reactive policing.

The solution will need to begin with an acknowledgement that the attacks are xenophobic and not the sugar-coated explanations by politicians who insist these are just criminal acts.

Whether criminal elements take advantage of these attacks is neither here nor there. The fact is that violence against foreigners is becoming institutionalised and children are growing up seeing this as normal.

Is it not time the government led an initiative – partnering with other sectors of society – to conscientise citizens about the evils of xenophobia?

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