Heed the calls, or SA will burn
After the deaths of 62 people and the destruction of millions of rands worth of property, a parliamentary committee probing the 2008 attacks on foreign nationals came to the remarkable conclusion that “xenophobic attitudes do exist among some South African citizens”.
It said such attitudes were “largely based on unfounded and unverified fears, as well as the inclination to stereotype foreigners as the cause of social and economic problems in the host country”.
These attitudes, the committee said, could have been exploited to incite attacks on foreigners.
At the conclusion of its work, the committee made wide-ranging recommendations on how to prevent another outbreak of xenophobic assaults in South Africa. We all know that violence continued to simmer over the following years, with serious flare-ups in parts of the country.
In 2015, there was a more serious outbreak which, though not quite as bad as the onslaught of 2008, made international headlines.
When that one subsided, it was back to the simmering tensions – until last week, when terrible scenes erupted again in parts of Gauteng.
It was clear this week that we are unable to slay this demon. After the current wave of xenophobic attacks subsides, you can be sure that it will be back to the same pattern. There will be a report. There will be some simmering violence, and then down the line there will be another big outbreak.
There are many reasons we are unable to defeat xenophobia, one of which is the condescending manner in which those in authority and those who live in comfort see those who are in involved in the attacks.
Before anyone jumps up and down, what follows is not a justification of xenophobic tendencies and the violence that sometimes accompanies such. It is rather a call for going back to one of the key recommendations of the post-2008 reports.
The committee recommended that there was a continuous need to “deal with the matters of concern raised by South African citizens and ensure that these are adequately addressed”.
These issues deal with the lived experience of South Africans, particularly those in the lowermiddle and lower stratums of society.
They feel the socioeconomic pressures more than those in the middle and upper classes. It is they who compete for resources and opportunities. They experience first-hand the illegal conduct of some in the immigrant communities.
So, when the residents of Rosettenville turned on their foreigner neighbours last week, it was on the pretext that Nigerian drug dealers and pimps were damaging the community. As always, during these attacks every foreigner gets painted with the same dirty brush. Innocents suffer.
But the big question is: If the residents believed that drug dealers, foreign or local, were polluting their community, why did they not report them to the police?
The answer to that is, they did. The unacceptable last resort came after years of frustration at seeing the brazen criminals go about their business with an air of invincibility.
A local man told the Ground Up news agency that he and his neighbour were “happy about how the community is dealing with this drugs and prostitution thing”.
“We both have kids and when we step outside our homes, we are confronted by prostitutes and guys selling drugs on every corner. This is not a good environment for our kids,” he said.
“The police do nothing, so the people have decided to mobilise and handle the matter themselves.”
In Pretoria, the issue was about the alleged criminal and economic repercussions wrought by foreigners in communities. Residents accused foreigners of taking their jobs, crowding them out of business opportunities, hijacking buildings and dealing in drugs. They said the same thing about having given up on the authorities’ willingness or ability to intervene on their behalf.
There were the usual sanctimonious condemnations. The protesters who had taken the law into their own hands were ignorant, selfhating Africans. There was the now tired story of how African countries helped liberate South Africa from apartheid and the people of this country therefore owed a (huge) permanent debt to the rest of the continent.
Nigeria’s dysfunctional government, whose failures have resulted in the country having a massive diaspora, escalated the matter to diplomatic crisis-level.
Very few of those condemning the violence bothered to delve into the systemic failures that are the cause of the frustrations of mainly working-class South Africans. Few bothered to ask what really lies behind the perceptions so deeply held by reasonable people. No, they were just backward thugs.
As despicable as it is, the xenophobic violence is a desperate plea to be listened to.