There's no excuse for our xenophobia

An EFF member holding up a poster against xenophobia walks through Alexandra. (Thomas Hartleb, News24)
An EFF member holding up a poster against xenophobia walks through Alexandra. (Thomas Hartleb, News24)

There’s a nasty debate as to whether South Africa’s xenophobia problem is back in full force, including denials. 

Following violence in Pretoria, we are again treated to a dose of incoherence regarding how to understand what actually happened in Tshwane. One aide of the story says that the march that was organised against foreign nationals in Tshwane townships had nothing to do with a specific attitude of xenophobia that some South Africans tend to show towards foreign nationals in the country. 

Those who are set on making sure that our communities look as angelical as possible have maintained that the march was aimed solely at highlighting the scourge of crime, and that it was not meant to target foreign nationals residing and doing business in the affected areas. 

When pressed for further details, those who drive this line of thinking, however, fail to explain why those who marched seem to believe that foreign nationals are solely responsible for crime in that area. If indeed this is the case, why didn’t the march also target local collaborators and enablers?

The main problem with South Africa’s debate on xenophobia, or any debate on the issue, is that people believe those who show xenophobic attitudes are justified in doing so because they have real socio-economic challenges such as unemployment and political or social destitution. 

The existence of socio-economic challenges is therefore taken to mean that the main problem is not xenophobia; it is rather these problems that cause the reaction by communities. Local leaders are then blamed for preying on the socio-economic challenges as they drive xenophobia. 

This explanation seeks to excuse communities that get involved in such activities. It is so incoherent that it only seems aimed at protecting the image of South Africans and South Africa. It fails to properly explain a specific attitude displayed by some of the communities towards foreign nationals living in South Africa.

It is impossible to resolve the problem of xenophobia if we continue refusing to acknowledge it exists in the first place. 

Of course the existence of xenophobic attitudes will always be triggered and enabled by socio-economic challenges. Xenophobia is not a hobby or a pastime activity that people engage in only when they are bored. Xenophobia is anchored in real life challenges. When it is triggered by observable concerns such as crime and unemployment, it does not make the attitude any less xenophobic. 

The issues that trigger xenophobic attitudes may be genuine, but what is problematic and purely xenophobic is the belief that those problems can be addressed by getting rid of foreign nationals. This is when the presence of foreign nationals is seen as the cause for the socio-economic ills, which are genuine.

It is dishonest for South Africans to blame their problems on the presence of foreign nationals in South Africa – especially when most of these problems are due to policy failures on the part of the ANC-led government. 

Even worse is the attitude by figures such as the DA’s Herman Mashaba, who seeks to gain political mileage by blaming foreign nationals for causing crime and soiling the City of Johannesburg. 

If indeed some foreign nationals are involved in illicit business such as operating brothels and selling drugs, South Africans are actively playing a bigger role as enablers of such activities. Therefore, it makes no sense to target foreign nationals as the root cause of our problems. 

When it comes to government’s excuse that there is no xenophobia but only common acts of criminality, I rest my case. Of course South Africa generally has the problem of violent crime. Instances of looting businesses are also common when people gather and protest in South Africa. 

This means that patterns of xenophobia in South Africa will naturally attract criminal elements. But it does not mean because crimes get committed during xenophobic instances such instances should be seen as mere criminal activities with no connection to xenophobia. 

To put it differently, it is unrealistic to expect crime to stop during those days that xenophobic outbreaks take place.

Xenophobia, in fact, takes the shape of some of the local challenges such as crime. In the USA, for example, it is hidden in the local right wing agenda that seeks to expel foreign nationals and block some from travelling to the USA. 

Xenophobia is a parasitic attitude that preys on genuine local concerns, real or perceived. 

- Ralph Mathekga is an independent political analyst and author of the book When Zuma Goes. He writes a weekly column for 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.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.