Populist rhetoric fans fires

2015-04-05 15:00

There have been some incredibly reckless statements by powerful people about foreigners in recent months.

They include Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane’s warning to “fellow comrades and friends” that the proliferation of foreign shop owners in townships was “a recipe for disaster” and Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu’s charge that foreigners “cannot barricade themselves in and not share their practices with local business owners”.

It is as if open season has been declared for populist, antiforeign rhetoric.

But by far the worst was the rant by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, who tore into foreigners by saying, in isiZulu: “We are requesting those who come from outside to please go back to their countries.

“When you walk in the street you cannot recognise a shop you used to know because it has been taken over by foreigners, who then mess it up by hanging amanikiniki [tatty rags],” the king told a moral regeneration event last week.

This week, he was joined by Edward Zuma, the pipsqueak son of the president, who blamed foreigners for all the country’s ills and warned of a ticking time bomb, as “they” were taking over.

All this talk may seem attractive, as it finds receptive ears among the poor – with whom foreigners compete for jobs and basic services. But it is incendiary and could fan the xenophobic fires government has been trying to quell.

Antiforeigner feelings run high in many communities living in appalling socioeconomic conditions and where desperate citizens are looking for scapegoats for their suffering. The populist statements by leading personalities encourage this scapegoating.

Today, the scapegoats may be the foreigners.

Tomorrow, it may well be the upper classes and, the following day, it could be the leaders.

By then, the fires will be out of control.

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