Fanning the Flames of Hate

2015-06-15 17:46

Xenophobia is a useful distraction

Joseph Nye, speaking recently in Oxford, remarked that the Chinese Government’s sabre-rattling over the South China Sea was a smokescreen. He argued that the emphasis on issues of ethnicity and race was being used as a deliberate attempt to draw attention away from the country’s sluggish economic performance.

Nye’s thesis is not new. Several commentators have argued that this is the raison d’etre for ‘otherising’.

Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison summarised this best when she said ‘‘the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again.’’

These observations are astute. Even in rejecting racism, we may fall into the trap of empowering racists. Otherising creates a logic of deficiency. It gives the aggressor primacy and forces the victim to explain themselves within a continuum relative to a fake standard of superiority. It is all consuming. And, it is designed to undermine.

Xenophobic violence and the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement come to mind. They are both important. They allow the kind of introspection, and healing, a hurt society like South Africa needs. But they are costly: they distract us from addressing other questions which, if answered, could better achieve their stated aims.

Serious debate over government’s economic policy, for example, is subject to less scrutiny than social issues. This may be because social problems are easier to address and can have immediate impact. Or, it can be because they are more attractive.

But, a universal truth for South Africa is that our social problems are symptomatic of the rotten and racialised economy upon which it is built.

This is not to criticise what has been started. We need to do both.

There is silent party in the room. One that escapes accountability by deflecting attention when it fans ethno-nationalistic flames. Our government has a role to play in making economic progress possible. Too often, it fails and distracts us by setting our tempers ablaze. We are hoodwinked by its façade of victimhood at the expense of our own.

The rise of increasing ethnic and racial tension in South Africa is not accidental. It may not even be as a result of what is said, but when silence is maintained. As things get worse, this will be all to common. And we should be careful that we are not being distracted, and allowing the flames of hate to engulf us.

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