Who feels it, knows it

2015-04-19 15:00

Disclaimer: This column is not in defence of xenophobia

One thing that has not been in short supply in the past few weeks has been the ritualistic chest-beating by middle and upper class South Africans atoning for the sins of their xenophobic brethren.

There has been sanctimonious condemnation of the mobs that have been on the rampage in the past fortnight. Those taking part in the xenophobic violence have been characterised as intolerant barbarians and self-hating Africans.

They have been likened to the racists of yesteryear and are accused of behaving like jackboot thugs who enforced apartheid.

“Not in my name” screamed the bold messages in cyberspace and on the airwaves. We have been bombarded with messages of “Say no to xenophobia”, “Stop the hate”, “Stop the killing”, “Love thy neighbour”. It is only a matter of time before #kumbaya starts trending.

This reaction is no different to that of 2008 when well-heeled citizens delivered provisions to refugee camps. They sped past impoverished informal settlements on their way there, ignoring the daily suffering of their countrymen. As then, the politicians have reminded us how the continent supported our struggle and housed exiles during the years of revolution.

In contrast, the condemnation from the working classes has been muted. There has actually been applause and a lot of envy from those who are not in the hot spots.

On some radio stations, callers are saying: “Yes, we condemn the violence but...” They have dismissed the “We are all Africans” exhortations and reminded the politicians that while they were in exile, ordinary South Africans were on the streets gulping tear gas and dodging the bullets of security forces. The argument about the need to absorb millions of immigrants because thousands of exiles were accommodated in their countries just doesn’t wash with them.

So the question that the South African elite – political and private – should be asking themselves is why it is that they are so out of sync with the majority of the population. If they seriously and honestly sought the answer, they might find that they need to hold back on their patronising judgements of fellow citizens.

The reason for this is that the poor are not acting out of ignorance. There is a very logical sequence to the events of 2008 and subsequent sporadic xenophobic horrors.

And the sequence is that ordinary South Africans spent years waging a struggle for freedom, finally attained it in 1994 and before they could fully enjoy it, the table was crowded with strangers.

A combination of inadequate border controls, a corrupt home affairs system and police force, a confused immigration policy and general state chaos allowed the uncontrolled influx of millions of people.

Most of them fled wars, oppression, dysfunctional societies and grinding poverty. Most were well meaning, but among them were schemers with nefarious intentions.

When these immigrants and refugees arrived, they found a population waiting for a better life for themselves and not necessarily for unexpected visitors. They found a government that was struggling – for various reasons – to deliver this better life in good time. The scramble for those resources at the bottom of the socioeconomic pile was bound to result in animosity. And ours being the society that likes to resolve issues physically, it did not need a sangoma to predict that violence would follow.

Adding fuel to the fire was that business and upper-income households preferred the exploitable labour of desperate foreigners. South Africans who had striven for decent working conditions and living wages were never going to take kindly to the newcomers undercutting them and eroding their hard-won rights.

Secondly, the corruption of resource allocation at local level exacerbated matters as people were overtaken and crowded out by foreigners. The seizing of opportunities by new arrivals with access to better business backing devastated local businesses and was sure to produce a backlash.

The other matter, which our political correctness makes us shy away from, is what the poor see as the visible and disproportionate involvement of foreigners in crime. They see it and experience it in their communities.

The challenge for us all is to ensure that this hatred and resentment does not become a national ideology. The foreign nationals in our midst are certainly never going back home. This is their khaya now and we have to find a way of normalising their presence.

But our elite need to stop patronising the working class, and seeing them as irrational and stupid. They are merely defending their table and no amount of preaching by those with full bellies will convince them they are wrong.

As Peter Tosh and Bob Marley once sang: “Who feels it, knows it...”

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