Honesty About Xenophobia

2015-07-10 10:12

Pangas (machetes) and knives were wielded, insults were exchanged and people were left dead. The political elites were left in a daze of confusion as to what was happening. First, we heard a lot of excuses and equivocation. “These are criminal acts by looters, not xenophobia” - explained the hapless Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane, MEC of Community Safety for the economic heartland, the Gauteng Province. The State Security minister and other high-ranking officials soon joined in the “this isn’t xenophobia, only criminality chorus”… A part of me was prompted to pen an open letter to the migrants which have been affected by these seemingly irrational acts.

Dear Foreigner from the rest of Africa and selected Parts of Asia:

You may have wondered what it was that you did to deserve such brutality and the disdain that we have meted out to you. Well, the thing is; not much. We are fighting you because we have failed ourselves. Let me explain.

We failed to stem the tide of drugs and prostitution that has engulfed our inner cities and townships. When our police force intercepted large shipments of cocaine from they saw fit to help the criminals bribe their way out of trouble. We ignored the complicity of our countrymen who facilitated these acts and allowed a biased and overused narrative of the nefarious “Nigerian drug-lord” to be perpetuated through the media. We did this with full knowledge that we were as guilty of these crimes if not more. We said very little of the prevalence of nyaope and other drugs where we as South Africans had the lion’s share of the manufacturing and distribution networks.

We failed to root out officials who sold RDP houses meant for the poor to ineligible people. We pretended that the only wrongful recipients were foreign nationals. We played the victim card and exclaimed “see! They’re stealing our houses”!

We failed to call out Mugabe on his vote-rigging and mismanagement of the Zimbabwean economy. We failed to condemn the violent attacks we witnessed daily on TV against the MDC and others, then we acted really surprised when the Limpopo border patrol units were overwhelmed with thousands of illegal crossings. We even pretended not to see the rampant corruption at the border posts.

We failed to root out officials who sold South African identity documents and passports to foreign nationals; we saw the bribes changing hands and did nothing. We then cried foul when the illegal recipients stood in line with us for social grants and other state benefits. “They are taking from us!” we cried.

We failed to enforce city by-laws in Johannesburg and illegal structures and extensions soon flooded the townships and inner cities. Many of them housed spaza shops which were operated by foreign nationals such as yourselves. We grew to resent you for “taking” opportunities that we ourselves had not seen before or had abandoned, opting to rather be your landlord rather than a competitor. When you formed buying clubs to take advantage of group buying power, we felt the oxygen being sucked out of our more random, individualistic businesses. So when the violence began a few months ago, we were more than happy to standby while the local hoodlums looted your shops and stole your money.

Finally, we’d like to highlight to you that we are a nation in denial. It has become our national culture. We have come up with all manner of euphemisms and scapegoats for our failures. In this unfortunate period, you are it.

We have yet to arrest the killers of Ernesto Nhamwuave, the Mozambican man who was set alight and burnt to death in the xenophobic violence of 2008. In fact, the police have shut the case citing a “lack of evidence”. We haven’t even brought anyone to book for the Marikana Massacre (or “incident” as the politicians call it). The fact that it played out on live television before millions of stunned viewers hasn’t helped our law enforcement agencies to get to the bottom of the issue. They saw it fit to rather perpetrate a massive cover-up at the Farlam Commission of enquiry that was set up to investigate that violent period. The Commission says we need “more investigation, “first aid training” and maybe a new Police Commissioner. Maybe.

We are as one opposition leader described us’ a “broken nation led by a broken man willing to break any institution in order to protect himself and his friends”- (Mmusi Maimane). We are in denial and only worry about good performance when other people are watching: another opposition leader pointed out : “it’s a shame that twenty years later you come here to roll out a program on eradication of mud schools. You were on paraffin speed building stadiums for the 2010 Soccer World Cup, but you are failing to build schools, and you are failing basic things such as toilets. Our people still do not have basic things such as toilets we must have corruption-free government. And this means no one must take government money and build his own house, and say “I know nothing about it”. We must fight institutionalised corruption and defeat kleptocracy”- Julius Malema.

What was the official response to these assertions? “We have a good story to tell”.


To acknowledge any of these things would be blasphemy, you see? We would rather stand by while Goodwill Zwelithini stands in a full stadium and washes his hands of his guilt a la Pontius Pilate. We will keep quiet while he stands in public, disassociates himself with his own words and laments the actions of a “Third Force that sows divisions and spreads violence”.

So then brothers and sisters, we are sorry for the lack of leadership, the denialism and equivocation. One day we will remember what you did for us and how you continue to contribute to us. One day we will acknowledge our responsibility for inflicting on ourselves the things we blamed on you. Perhaps we will see that xenophobia is wrong, not because African nations helped during Apartheid, but because you are human beings.

Yours sincerely,

A South African

*Akani writes in his personal capacity.

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