Guest Column

The problem is not Xenophobia, but a different type of phobia

2019-04-08 18:00
An anti-xenophobia march in Johannesburg. PHOTO: file

An anti-xenophobia march in Johannesburg. PHOTO: file

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South Africa has once again been rocked by attacks on foreign nationals, resulting in the death of two people in KwaZulu-Natal. It's commendable how police swiftly responded to calm the situation down. What has been poor, however, is how we have always characterised this problem. 

Some call these attacks xenophobic, others brush it away as just crime, while others argue that South Africans are not xenophobic. 

One such person is former president Thabo Mbeki, who once argued that South Africans are not xenophobic. He argued that township businesspeople are "just trying to protect their market" from foreign nationals who outsell them in the township market – this, though, without agreeing with the attacks. He also blamed the killing of Emmanuel Sithole in 2015 on "ordinary township thuggery", arguing that it was not xenophobic, as was popular belief. 

Whatever we choose to call it, reducing these recurrent attacks on black foreign nationals to xenophobia is a blanket explanation that simplifies the problem. What we saw there is Afrophobia, and here's why. 

Xenophobia is "a strong feeling of dislike or fear of people from other countries", according to the Oxford dictionary. The definition doesn't say that this "strong feeling of dislike or fear" is based on race or class, but toward "people from other countries" – all inclusive.

Unisa professor Rothney Tshaka draws a distinction when explaining that, "Xenophobia is fear of the other; Afrophobia is fear of a specific other – the black other from north of the Limpopo River". 

And in South Africa, if you cared to observe, the "specific other" has mostly, if not always, been black foreign nationals. For example, the 2008 and 2015 so-called xenophobic attacks happened largely to black foreign nationals.

"If foreigners generally were the main target," Tshaka argues, "those who are anti-foreigner would no doubt have sought out all foreigners and made it known that they are not welcome in this country".

"The Bulgarian, Hungarian – or any other white foreigner – is seen as a potential employer by virtue of his or her skin colour and is therefore not subjected to the acrimony that is reserved for those who are seen as competing for the scarce resources," he writes in an article published on Unisa's website.

From our experience with these violent attacks, it can be argued that the problem that some South Africans have is not just foreigners, but specifically black foreign nationals – who they believe threaten their participation in the economy. The feeling is that black foreign nationals take their business and jobs. Some also think that crime in South Africa is solely, or largely, the making of black foreign nationals. In South Africa, it appears the word "foreigner" – when spoken in relation to crime and country-border politics – has been reserved to implicitly refer to black foreign nationals. It has become a dirty word.

Be honest. How often have you seen politicians and police conducting Operation Fiela in affluent suburbs, like Camps Bay, Bishops Court and Stellenbosch? How often have you heard that affluent suburbs, like the aforementioned, have been raided in search for sex and drug traffickers? You see raids happening in Hillbrow and other areas commonly populated by black foreign nationals. Even when it comes to 'sting operations' on unregistered businesses, you often see these raids in businesses owned by black foreign nationals. 

In 2017, a group of Pretoria West residents went on a rampage, attacking Nigerian nationals and destroying their properties. They torched two houses and numerous cars, accusing them of peddling drugs and running brothels. Incidents of this nature are common in our democracy. 

Could it be that crime, more especially that of trafficking, is the monopoly of some black foreign nationals? Let's look at some quick facts when it comes to trafficking, a crime often associated with black foreign nationals. The 2017 Trafficking in Persons report has made some observations on trafficking syndicates operating in South Africa. 

Here's what they found:

• South Africa is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking. 

• South African citizens and foreign nationals are subjected to human trafficking within the country.

• South Africans constitute the largest number of victims within South Africa.

• South African children are subjected to trafficking mainly within the country, recruited from poor rural areas and brought to and moved between urban centres such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Bloemfontein. 

• Girls are subjected to sex trafficking and domestic servitude; boys are forced to work in street vending, food service, begging, criminal activities and agriculture.

Who is responsible for these crimes? According to the report:

• Local criminal rings organise child sex trafficking, while Russian and Bulgarian crime syndicates facilitate trafficking within the Cape Town commercial sex industry, and Thai and Chinese nationals organise the sex trafficking of Asian men and women.

• Nigerian syndicates dominate the commercial sex industry in several provinces.

• To a lesser extent, syndicates recruit South African women to Europe and Asia, where some are forced into sex work, domestic servitude or drug smuggling. 

This report acknowledges that some foreign nationals do commit crime in the country. It is a cause for concern and requires law enforcement agencies to act swiftly. But as you can see, it is not just black foreign nationals who commit these crimes, but racially diverse syndicates.

Shouldn't our approach in dealing with these crimes then be reflective of the demographics of the alleged criminals? (By dealing with these crimes I don't mean vigilantism, but proper law enforcement.) If, indeed, what concerns the attackers of foreign nationals is crime, why is it race and class based? 

What we know for sure is that South Africans are not xenophobic, otherwise they would have raised their concerns about crime to all those who are responsible and not based on race and class. 

- Mathebula is a content producer at News24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    racism  |  xenophobia  |  immigration
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