Euphoria to paranoia?

2010-07-13 00:00

INCREASINGLY, the excitement about our successful hosting of the World Cup is giving way to fears of a flare-up in violent attacks on African immigrants in South African townships and slums.

For some time now, rumours about a resurgence of the orgy of violence last seen in that fateful winter of 2008 have increased. Sections of the international press have widely reported that those behind the imminent xenophobic attacks are just waiting for the World Cup to end and visitors to go back home before they start hounding out African immigrants.

The local press is reporting that many African immigrants have started leaving their places of refuge in fear. Most are trekking back to homes they left, hoping that they will be able to come back to South Africa after the violence is over. Unlike international football fans who arrived here fearful because of media reports about South Africa’s crime, but now leave with fond memories of this country, immigrants came in hope and now leave disappointed at our lack of hospitality.

For these poor souls, the South African hospitality so talked about in the midst of the World Cup is not true. For them, the South African communities that are gripped by the euphoric spirit of the month are also capable of being blood- thirsty killing machines.

Many of those quoted in various media outlets, including social networking sites on the Internet, indicated that the threat to their lives came from a small number of people in the community. Yet, they felt the threat was real because they could not say where the attacks will come from and when.

The ugly scenes of May-June 2008 embarrassed us in the eyes of the world. South Africa’s image was tarnished, setting the country’s strong African agenda back by many years. South Africa could not claim leadership of Africa globally when its citizens were attacking African immigrants. Such a development also undermined South Africa’s economic prospects, although this was never fully quantified.

It was not just the outbreak of violence that shamed the country, but it was also how the authorities responded. There were no pre- emptive measures in place to prevent the occurrence even though rumours were doing the rounds months before May 2008.

Once the orgy of violence broke out, South Africa’s security forces and political leaders were found wanting. They failed to act decisively. Few mayors, premiers and national leaders stepped out to lead the fight against violence.

This time around, the government seems determined to prevent a repeat of this ineptitude. Police officers and even soldiers have been deployed in some areas.

The Minister of Police is talking tough. Even the national cabinet has established a ministerial committee to lead government response to possible xenophobic attacks, a response that ranges from teaching tolerance, the deployment of security forces to emergency humanitarian response.

The minister is also blaming the press reports for rumours spread by “sinister forces” bent on damaging South Africa’s image abroad and seeking to undermine the country’s successful hosting of the World Cup.

I also thought so before my travels between Durban, Pietermaritzburg and KwaHhobu in the New Hanover district over the week- end. However, it emerged from street-corner gossip and conversations with ordinary people that there was a groundswell of intention to drive foreign nationals out the townships and slums.

I checked with friends in Alexandra, Mamelodi and KwaLanga who confirmed this rising anger against foreign nationals.

It dawned on me that there is a real threat and that it comes from ordinary South Africans who feel they are feeling the sharp end of the country’s weak immigration policy. The source of rumours is therefore internal.

This is a great opportunity for authorities to nip the problem in the bud once and for all. They need to dispatch political leaders throughout the country to listen to the poor. Such a listening campaign must provide an outlet for angry South Africans to speak out, even against them.

In the process, the government must be ready to look at the immigration policy again, including how foreign nationals are integrated into poor communities. They need to act tough against illegal immigration and the employment in low-income occupations of illegal immigrants.

Some leaders must engage the countries of origin of most of the immigrants explaining to them the challenge that the country faces. Many ordinary people have never been in exile and do not understand South Africa’s Africa- centred agenda. They are struggling in grinding poverty, which generates a lot of anger and social ills. It’s time South Africa led SADC towards a common position on the movement of people in the region.

Until then, all peace-loving citizens must resist the temptation to take their anger out on vulnerable immigrants in the knowledge that society is beginning to do something serious to alleviate poverty, control immigration and curb illegal employment of undocumented immigrants.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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