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Watching these scenes over the last few days and hearing the pain and anxiety of our African brothers and sisters I felt, for the first time since 1994, ashamed of calling myself a South African, writes Melanie Verwoerd.
Living in South Africa, we are rather numbed by news of violence. However, the last few days have been very disturbing. I was in Johannesburg when the recent attacks against foreign traders broke out. News of the violence spread quickly and my various Uber drivers during the day (many of whom were foreign) got progressively more anxious and upset.
Of course, there were the usual false WhatsApp messages. One in particular was of a man burnt alive after petrol was thrown over him. The senders claimed it had happened on Monday in Johannesburg, but it turns out that it was an old video from another country in Africa. (What possesses people to send these things around?)
The violence in Johannesburg and Tshwane resulted in numerous burnt and looted shops and left at least two people dead. It was followed by more than 100 arrests. Police Minister Bheki Cele condemned the violence and claimed it was criminality. The spokesperson for the ANC in Gauteng also condemned the attacks. Yet, there was a deafening silence from the Presidency. Twitter was buzzing with tweets asking him to react. Finally, on Tuesday, more than 24 hours after the attacks started, he reacted during a speech. He was very firm in his condemnation, yet it seemed too little, too late.
Some in government (as they also did in 2018) argue that these attacks were not xenophobic, but rather "just" criminality. This seems disingenuous. Undoubtedly opportunistic criminals and looters joined the original attacks, but from media reports as well as interviews with those involved, it is clear that the attacks were aimed at foreigners and specifically African traders. (The trigger seemed to have been the alleged killing of a taxi driver by a Nigerian national in Tshwane.)
There are many arguments as to why we continue to see this lashing out at foreigners. The most common argument being that it is the (growing) economic pressure on poor South Africans. It is true that people across the world tend to be far more generous when times are good. Intolerance quickly appears with an economic downturn, when there is pressure on scarce resources and in particular a lack of employment. So yes, if our economy was performing better it is possible that we might see less of these attacks.
Xenophobia alive and well in SA
However, from the many WhatsApp groups that I am part of, it is very clear that xenophobia is alive and well in this country. I have previously written about the problematic statements and misinformation on some of these groups, such as those alleging a link between foreign nationals and contaminated food.
On a political WhatsApp group this week, someone circulated a video of members of the SAPS being attacked by a group of people. The person recording the incident can be heard saying that it was happening in Sunnyside and that the attackers were foreign nationals, even though no proof of the nationality of the perpetrators was provided.
The attack was shocking, but immediately people on this political WhatsApp group reacted with: "Let them go home", "How can we allow foreign nationals to attack our police?" and "Police must meet fire with fire". Ironically, many of those belonging to this WhatsApp group were welcomed by countries north of our border when in exile during the apartheid years.
These attacks can very quickly escalate to the point where they will be completely out of control. Not only can - and will - they jump like bushfires across the country, but they have already had implications for South Africa's relationship with some African countries whose citizens have been targeted. Nigeria has indicated that they will not tolerate these attacks and will protect their citizens.
The president of the National Association of Nigerian Students, Daniel Akpan, gave an ultimatum to all of the South Africans in Nigeria to leave within eight days and take their businesses with them. Zambia has warned their truck drivers not to drive into South Africa until the situation has improved and called off their soccer match against Bafana Bafana this week. Zimbabwe has threatened to stop all cross-border traffic.
Ashamed of calling myself South African
Clearly these attacks can put South African lives in danger in many countries. They can also put an end to hopes that the recently formed African Free Trade Bloc will assist with our economic troubles. There is also no doubt that news reports on the events of the last few days will scare away tourists and put further doubts in the minds of foreign investors.
The government needs to be decisive in dealing with these attacks. They should never have been allowed to spread so widely. It also needs to do more than respond once attacks flare up. Our nation needs to be educated and we need to prosecute those who are behind xenophobic utterances on social media and in public. This is, after all, also hate speech and as damaging and dangerous as racist statements.
Watching these scenes over the last few days and hearing the pain and anxiety of our African brothers and sisters I felt, for the first time since 1994, ashamed of calling myself a South African.
We fought so hard to create a country where we celebrate difference. Just because someone speaks with a different accent, has different features and possibly a different skin tone, we cannot repeat what was done under apartheid – persecute and kill those who are different. If we allow this, we have truly lost our soul as a nation.
- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.
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.
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