The mysterious incompatibility of bias and brigandry

Image © Sharon Mina Olago

Understanding and preventing xenophobic attacks requires introspection from citizens and the ruling party, writes LOREN LANDAU.

Over the past few weeks South Africa has traded in its World Cup fever for fears of xenophobic violence to rival that last seen in May 2008. Right on cue, the final World Cup whistle saw migrants packing and heading for the borders.

Although cash-starved and struggling, Zimbabwe still managed to establish a camp for returnees.

Even under the watchful eyes of an inter-ministerial task team created to combat the possibility of violence, foreigners were thrown from trains, shot (but not robbed) in broad daylight, and had their shops and homes looted and destroyed. But with the rapid intervention of the police and, remarkably, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), the violence has remained relatively isolated and quickly subdued. To date we have seen nothing like the 2008 madness.

I rest easier knowing the government is taking a strong stand, even if the domestic use of the military is troubling. However, the doublespeak around this response has kept me from getting the beauty sleep I need.

In the face of widespread alarm, President Zuma initially assured us that there had only been rumours, and no genuine ‘threats’ of xenophobia. We then heard that the migrants lining the highways were simply seasonal farm workers returning home.

However, many migrants took a different view, and openly spoke about the threats they have received and the fears driving them away. Now that the attacks have continued – albeit sporadically – the police continue to insist that these are merely opportunistic criminals working under the guise of xenophobia.

A visit to Kya Sands by the Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) was unhelpfully inconclusive. Apparently deaf to victims’ claims that they had been threatened and targeted with xenophobic epithets, an SAHRC investigator let the police’s assessment stand. (That said, the Commission subsequently attacked the government for being slack on xenophobia, after having waited almost two years to issue its own report on the 2008 violence.)

Regardless of the doublespeak, the logic and evidence are clear: people are being targeted because of where they are from. Government officials have argued the Kya Sands attacks can’t be xenophobic because South Africans were among the victims.

They should not need reminding that a third of the people killed in the 2008 ‘xenophobic’ melee were South African citizens. During those attacks and since, numerous conflicts have emerged between ‘locals’ and the ‘wrong’ kind of local migrants. Usually these are Venda, Shangaan, or Pedi speakers but, given the right circumstances, they can be almost anyone. Others claimed this is not xenophobia because wealthy whites have yet to be targeted. This is like saying that shooting elephants isn’t poaching because no one has yet killed a lion.

While we may not always know what specific interests a particular attack serves, extensive research by the Forced Migration Studies Programme (FMSP) and others largely points to the same conclusions: these are not random acts of hatred or spontaneous violence. They are organised to benefit someone. In some instances this is a business owner who, unable or unwilling to compete in a free market against a new arrival, turns to the gun. In other instances, it is local leaders – sometimes elected, sometimes not – looking for ways of shoring up popular support by ‘fighting crime’ (i.e. evicting foreigners) or distributing looted largesse. Some belong to independent vigilante groups, others work on behalf of the country’s political parties. This includes the one in power since 1994.

What, then, is behind this unwillingness to acknowledge what is really going on? A partial answer is revealed by the police ministry’s accusations that ‘Afro-pessimists’ and ‘prophets of doom’ are spreading rumours to try to rob South Africa and the ANC of its World Cup hosting glory. If this logic holds, then ‘normal’ looting and murder is something the world has come to expect of South Africa, and can do little to tarnish the country’s recently polished image.

Apparently, we can deal with crime because it is rooted in the poverty and inequality inherited from apartheid. The solution to that pathology is continued redistribution and accelerated service delivery: all part of the ANC’s agenda. Allowing that South Africans – a majority of whom are ANC supporters – are somehow bigoted, afrophobic, or generally xenophobic strikes at the party’s reputation and self-image.

All this is worrying for a number of reasons. Obviously, the tacit acceptance of violence is disturbing. More so is a government unwilling to publically acknowledge criticism from what have often been credible individuals and institutions: Amnesty International, universities, civil society organisations, and even ‘The Elders’ (a group which includes famed and often outspoken Desmond Tutu). Labelling such critics as afro-pessimists is akin to making unsubstantiated and absurd charges of racism.

More importantly, this public denialism – this insistence that the very real crime we have seen is somehow ‘normal’ and non-xenophobic – only means violence is likely to continue. Labelling an attack xenophobic does not mean that all South Africans are bigots, just as saying South Africa is a dangerous place does not mean all are brigands. But denying that shouts of ‘you, Makwerekwere, get out’ and pamphlets blaming foreigners for crime, disease and unemployment are more than simple tools for criminals ignores the power of sentiment and extant anger.

These attacks are criminal, but they use the tools of hatred and bigotry. By shifting the blame for violence to ordinary criminals, we deny ourselves the possibility of addressing the admittedly more difficult issue of discrimination, political scapegoating and unscrupulous leaders. However, addressing these concerns will demand that the ANC looks deep within itself: not at those sitting around the cabinet buffet, but at how its leaders and leadership play out in townships across South Africa.

There is no third force or conspiracy to unseat the ANC; no one challenges its right to rule. But with its power comes responsibility. The lives and livelihoods of foreigners and other outsiders are now at risk. They may be saved by the necessary, if heavy-handed, tactics of the police and SANDF. This should comfort us. What should worry us are threats to political credibility and an open society in which elected officials heed warnings, accurately identify and diagnose problems and treat the population – regardless of origins – with respect, and provide them the security they deserve.

Dr Loren Landau is director of the Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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