Our leaders have loose tongues

2015-04-26 16:00

The current wave of xenophobic violence has caught most South Africans by surprise. But the confusion and the search for answers has led to all manner of irresponsible and puerile pronouncements by leaders trying to make sense of the situation.

It is perhaps understandable that the theories and explanations are varied, and often contradictory, because there are no identifiable leaders of xenophobia.

There’s no trace of anyone who authorities can speak to about why foreign nationals were attacked, and why now.

So it is a season of blame and passing the buck. Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini, whose comments that foreigners should pack their bags and go home were followed by violent days, has the temerity to blame the media, saying they should also be investigated by the Human Rights Commission.

We were also treated to a chilling and childish boast by the king that the country would have been reduced to ashes if he had incited people to attack foreigners.

President Jacob Zuma blames the media for carrying images that make South Africa look bad, saying they were creating the wrong impression that the whole country was ablaze. There is nothing surprising in this as our politicians are wont to kill the messenger, not the message.

But the mind-boggling and disappointing response came from our Speaker and national ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete, who said the xenophobic violence “was part of an evil programme to discredit South Africa in the international community”.

Mbete said the ANC would leave no stone unturned to expose those behind this “programme”. She said the idea of all this was to have the world condemn South Africa at a time when it was beginning to address its core challenges.

Mbete was joined by State Security Minister David Mahlobo, who said the attacks on foreigners and the defacement of statues were coordinated.

But Mbete is no stranger to these kind of comments. In April last year, while addressing the Progressive Professionals’ Forum, Mbete said opposition parties were colluding with “tentacles” from outside South Africa to unseat the ANC.

It is becoming harder to take Mbete seriously. She clearly lives in a world of paranoia, in which the ANC and government are fending off imaginary evil forces.

For a leader who has declared herself available to be president of the country, one shudders to imagine the kind of country South Africa would be under her leadership.

Her remarks are not only emotive, but can undermine the genuine efforts to understand and address the factors that give rise to xenophobia.

An analysis of what happened in 2008 and the lessons learnt are a good start. It is clear that when we unleash the might of our police and army, government can quell the violence for a while. But the underlying factors still need to be addressed. There is no doubt that there is deep-seated anger in our communities that has yet to be understood.

We should not take lightly the fact that when leaders go out to residents to speak to them about not being xenophobic, what people raise are issues of unemployment and poverty.

The Somalis who run spazas in our communities are not rich, but they eke out a living and have the dignity of a job. With each election race, all political parties promise to create more jobs, but the unemployment situation is not getting any better.

Being trapped in relative poverty while watching a new black middle class grow is leading to untold desperation among millions of South Africans living in townships and rural areas.

The violence on fellow Africans is an outlet for this anger, and the hate speech by irresponsible leaders only fuels the fire.

We cannot have leaders making xenophobic statements about there being too many foreigners in South Africa, that they take our jobs and women, and then be surprised at the violent consequences that follow these utterances.

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