The horror of xenophobia revisited

2013-06-02 14:00

Five years ago, South Africa exploded. We, and the world, watched in horror as South Africans turned on men, women and children from elsewhere on the African continent.

Xenophobia was the word dominating newspaper headlines, government and civil society statements, public debates and dinner-table discussions.

We raged: how could the country turn so violently on people from elsewhere on the continent?

Those who spearheaded the attacks were unrepentant. Foreigners, they said, were taking jobs, money and food from struggling South Africans. They were marrying South African women.

So what have we learnt in the 60 months that have passed since xenophobia entered our country’s lexicon?

The answer, sadly, is nothing at all.

The violent wave of looting that has hit foreign-owned shops in Gauteng, the Northern Cape, the Free State and the Eastern Cape cannot be attributed solely to xenophobia.

Even the foreigners who are being attacked insist the motives are different this time around: quite simply, they are the “haves”, and they are being targeted by the “have-nots”.

Certainly, their nationalities make them more vulnerable. They are perceived to be here illegally, even if they’re properly documented, and many deeply distrust our country’s police force.

The looters, and those being looted, are blaming “criminal elements”. They point out that trouble in parts of Gauteng started after a Somali shopkeeper allegedly shot dead two Zimbabweans.

But does it matter what’s motivating these attacks? Whether it’s xenophobia, envy, casual criminality or a combination of these things, we cannot condone the scenes that have unfolded – and will continue to unfold – on South African streets.

We will not quash xenophobia unless we create and sustain jobs, forge partnerships between local and foreign business owners, and loudly and publicly identify the opportunistic crooks in our communities.

There’s hard work ahead for every South African if we are to fix this rot.

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