Xenophobia: If we can make them look bad, our problems will look better

2015-04-06 15:00

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First we go for the Nigerians. They’re easy ­targets. We tell everyone they’re drug dealers and are corrupt, because then we can victimise and criminalise them, and our police can harass them. We won’t feel guilty.

If we can make them look bad, our problems will look better.

Then we go for the Zimbabweans, and harass and assault them if they don’t have papers. Even the legitimate ones are treated like criminals and wayward children.

Or we keep them in repatriation camps like Lindela in ­Krugersdorp, which in 2005 was described by visiting pastors as a “concentration camp” after 28 people reportedly died there.

Despite efforts to improve the camp, it still sporadically makes the news for the wrong reasons, such as overcrowding and inhumane conditions.

We don’t apply batho pele (the department of home affairs’ “people first” principle) to our brothers and sisters from other countries. Anecdotal evidence suggests applying for a visa at some of our embassies is a drawn-out gamble.

We go for the Mozambicans, Pakistanis, Somalis, Ethiopians – anyone we can blame our problems on. We burn and loot their shops, harm and kill and destroy. There are no consequences anyway.

Our system is hostile to foreigners, fuelled perhaps by a lack of political will. There are no votes to score from being nice to people who can’t vote here.

For example, somewhere in the department of justice, a 2001 report on racism and xenophobia has been gathering dust for, as far as can be established, the past three years. There was apparently an effort to finalise it after the 2008 xenophobic attacks, but it’s gone quiet now.

Department spokesperson Steve Mahlangu did not respond to emailed questions on the matter.

Our justice system seems to be dragging its feet too. For example:

»?Nobody was prosecuted for stabbing and setting alight Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave in Ramaphosa informal ­settlement in 2008, the Sunday Times reported last month. The case was closed in 2010 after police said they could find no witnesses or suspects, although the paper discovered an eye­witness who could identify suspects;

The remains of Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla/Foto24

»?In January, looters of shops owned by foreigners in ­Soweto and Kagiso told City Press the police encouraged them to steal; and

»?The Nigerian consulate claims 73 of the 116 Nigerians who died in South Africa last year were killed by police or their South African hosts. They allege that little justice followed.

Another spate of xenophobic attacks occurs after the death of a teenager who was allegedly gunned down by a foreign shop owner in Snake Park, Soweto. The community went on to vandalise and loot foreign-owned shops in the area. Picture: Leon Sadiki/City Press

But it’s not just the system; it’s also in the way we talk about foreigners. SABC Online tweeted that four foreigners were arrested for an on-camera attack on one of the broadcaster’s journalists, Vuyo Mvoko.

The fact that they’re not South African was not relevant to the crime.

Last week, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini told a “moral regeneration” gathering in Pongola, in isiZulu: “We urge all foreigners to pack their bags and leave.”

He later claimed the meaning was lost in translation and he intended his comments to refer only to illegal immigrants – but it is still believed to have sparked the violent attacks that followed against Congolese and Ethiopian residents in Durban.

Hundreds of foreign nationals were allegedly driven out of their businesses by a mob armed with weapons in Durban. Picture: Gallo Images / The Times/Tebogo Letsie

Even the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – a party claiming to have a Pan-Africanist agenda – gets it wrong.

Last month, MP Primrose Sonti said during a National Assembly debate that certain services in Marikana meant to ­empower local community members were being diverted to “amashangane” – referring to Mozambicans.

It slipped out way too easily, but to their credit, MPs called her out in Parliament and the party sent out an apology.

Unwittingly, the EFF’s emphasis on economic freedom could be part of the problem.

Loren Landau, South African research chair in mobility and the politics of difference at Wits, remarked in a paper on ­xenophobia and the 2010 World Cup, entitled Demons and Democracy, that the message coming from President Jacob Zuma and many other political leaders was that the only ­acceptable “positive values” were about promoting the welfare of previously disadvantaged people – those who had suffered ­under apartheid.

The ongoing, heated debates about racism in South Africa are an indication that unresolved issues of historical disadvantage, entitlement and responsibility are still raw topics.

Landau told City Press the problem was that public figures went unchallenged in their talk about foreigners.

“What I’ve seen printed regarding the ‘scourge’ of spaza shops, criminals and foreign land owners [Zuma recently announced foreign land ownership would be restricted] would get people nailed to the post in many other media markets,” he said.

“Perhaps because it resonates so strongly with popular opinion in South Africa, and foreigners are so poorly organised, no one seems to bother.”

He said this reinforced perceptions about foreigners as a negative force. People balked when he asked them how they would feel if the word ‘foreigner’ were replaced with ‘black’ in some of the phrases people used.

South ­Africans, and especially leaders, should check their talk and, where there is injustice, follow up with action – because in a continent and world that is increasingly without borders, we need fewer xenophobes, not more.

Talk to us: Are South Africans xenophobic?

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