Here's the missing xenophobia puzzle piece

2017-03-01 09:16

As xenophobic violence yet again raises its ugly head in SA, politicians, associations and analysts have been scrambling to preach that South Africans are not a hateful, racist bunch, intent doing harm to those they regard as “other”.

The pictures are inconvenient then.

It’s almost a year since cigarette vendor Emmanuel Sithole’s killers were jailed.

But how soon we forget how that brutal killing in 2015 hammered the image of a tolerant post-Apartheid SA.

As Pretoria simmers in the aftermath of violence, no doubt people from townships across the country are taking notice and perhaps seeds for further violence are being sown.

How soon we forget. History of violence Mthinta Bhengu, jailed for 17 years for killing Sithole was no stranger to violent crime, fuelled by a dark temper, drugs and alcohol, according to the probation officer.

But the crime doesn’t begin when people run wild, burning down foreigner shacks and businesses.

It begins in those conversations of casual racism at taxi ranks, shebeens, and along the road, waiting for a day labour job.

What political leaders and analysts fail to realise is that the hatred of other is a reality, but it is selective based on the immediate circumstances perceived by people who live on the edge and below the breadline.

It’s easy to wax lyrical about the innate value of all people, regardless of origin, but a drive through Vrygrond or Delft reveals an alternate reality: Foreigners make up a small, but closely knit group and local people are deeply suspicious.

They don’t see foreigners as the same: They see a threat – for jobs, economic opportunities; housing.

And this xenophobic violence is best illustrated by the example of the disregard of the vulnerable.

There is a small township on the outskirts of Strandfontein, in the south of the City of Cape Town. It’s populated by people from the rural Western and Northern Cape provinces.

Abject poverty

They live in abject poverty and depend on handouts and have the associated violence and disease that accompany such circumstances. Here’s the thing: When they (especially women) report crimes at a police station just 300m from the township, they are told: “Julle is mos nie mens nie, gaan hystoe [You are not people, go back home.]” If people from SA can be easily disregarded, how much more so for people perceived to have less value.

For people that live in the townships, the looting of Somali shops had an (intended) economic benefit.

When Somali shops were burned and looted in Valhalla Park on the Cape Flats, the price of bread at local stores jumped.

A metro police officer fires rubber bullets at anti-immigrant protesters in Pretoria. (Themba Hadebe, AP)

In fact, Somali shop owners should be credited with the innovation of selling slices of bread rather than an entire loaf, cups of oil, rather than a full bottle, and one or two eggs rather than a half dozen to customers.

This innovation caught local vendors unaware and the violence was directed as a way to end competition, exploiting xenophobic sentiment already present in the community.

The fact that leaders like Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini labelled foreigners ants and lice puts all South Africans on a collision course with the history of Rwanda and SA.

And Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba did himself no favours with his statement that linked immigrants to crime.

Anti-immigrant protesters stand during their march in Pretoria. (Themba Hadebe, AP)

The Quota Act (1930) and Aliens Act (1937) were intended to halt the immigration of Jews to SA in the bitter lead-up to World War II.

Then, as now, the script was a fear of the other, but the names were different. Instead of the current crop of bigots, then it was DF Malan and Hendrik Verwoerd leading the charge against the docking of the Stuttgart, with 537 refugees.

In Rwanda, almost one million people were killed in three months after President Juvenal Habyarimana's aeroplane was shot down near Kigali airport on April 6, 1994. But tensions had already been simmering well before the madness began, as illustrated in Hotel Rwanda (2004). When the appetite blood reaches a fever pitch thanks to populist politics, it's only the disenfranchised that will suffer.

Make no mistake, xenophobia in SA is a symptomatic of the impoverished strata of society.

Wealthy foreigners who occupy the V&A Waterfront and Sandton City precinct are largely insulated from the anti-immigrant sentiment while in township communities the rage builds because the perceived advantage that immigrants have.

In terms of competition for jobs, AfricaCheck found that the myth of immigrants is just that - a myth though the perception is that immigrants are "taking over" township economies.

"There is a disconnect between perception and reality largely because there hasn't been data available until now. So a lot of what has been said and reproduced is based on hearsay and anecdotal evidence or myths," said Dr Zaheera Jinnah, an anthropologist and researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University.

What comes next? No doubt regardless of which direction the protests and the take, responsible leadership must not only condemn the violence, it must also seriously tackle the underlying causes of discontent and frustration that people experience.

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