On Thursday, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba held a press conference to address the recent spate of xenophobic violence that has sparked once more in South Africa. For those expecting some kind of political leadership on the issue, it was a crushing disappointment. He deflected blame, contorted logic to breaking point and denied the obvious in a ridiculous attempt to describe the violence as anything but xenophobia.
Nobody has ever been attacked in South Africa purely because they're from another country? This is blatantly untrue.
I am reminded of a comment once made by the former President Thabo Mbeki when the xenophobic violence reached a crescendo in 2008. He said, "When I heard some accuse my people of xenophobia, of hatred of foreigners, I wondered what the accusers knew about my people, which I did not know ... and in spite of this reality, I will not hesitate to assert that my people are not diseased by the terrible affliction of xenophobia which has, in the past, led to the commission of the heinous crime of genocide."
The idea that South Africans are somehow above the impulses of xenophobia (and yes, eventually genocide) is political cowardice. It is precisely because the idea has purchase at every stratum of our society that condemning it in explicit terms would constitute political suicide.
The monarch of the Zulu nation King Goodwill Zwelithini expressed the national mood as crisply as one could hope in 2015. He said: "We are requesting those who come from outside to please go back to their countries. The fact that there were countries that played a role in the country's struggle for liberation should not be used as an excuse to create a situation where foreigners are allowed to inconvenience locals. I know you were in their countries during the struggle for liberation. But the fact of the matter is you did not set up businesses in their countries."
South Africa is a country of exclusionary nationalisms. We have done this in various forms for centuries. Apartheid was one such theory. Today, abantu are described differently to abantu bokuhamba (a phrase meaning "non-South Africans", but literally translates to "the goers-away") and this exclusion is violently enforced.
Mido Macia wasn't protected by our South African human rights (apparently reserved for abantu) when he was tied to the back of a police van and dragged to his death, a murder of such inventive horror that it can't have just been criminality. It was an expression of hatred against umuntu wokuhamba, meted out by agents of the state. I could say this of every xenophobic crime. It wasn't insignificant that so much of the 2008 violence was carried out by mobs. This form of violence has a particular history in this country, and it is almost always reserved for the very worst forms of criminals: witches, rapists, izimpimpi and so on. It's not a mistake that foreigners were thus dealt with.
The idea that we may someday return our country to a purified state by ejecting all the corrupting elements is by no means unique to our own country. The entire world is engulfed in increasing waves of xenophobic hostility. The talking points are all the same. U.S. President Donald Trump's xenophobic election platform was unoriginal.
It is often useful for certain political entrepreneurs to use this national disgust at foreigners to boost their careers. Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba is one such opportunist. In December, he blamed criminality on the African National Congress (ANC) failure to prevent "foreign criminals" from coming into the country. His PR stunt in Rosettenville blew up in his face when several foreign-owned properties were burned by people claiming that these were drug dens. He has now attempted to row back on those comments. He either knew what he was doing when he donned a high-visibility police jacket to go play cops-and-robbers in the South Rand — an act of brute cynicism — or he didn't realise what he was doing and was being dangerously naïve and incompetent. I'm not sure which is worse. He has now tainted himself and must not be allowed to escape his share of the blame for whatever comes of this latest phase of xenophobic violence.
South Africa has a serious crime problem, of course. Alan Dershowitz* is often credited with the expression that "A good working definition of antisemitism is taking a trait or action that is widespread, if not universal, and blaming only the Jews for it". Tweak this statement and apply it to criminality and foreigners, and the enormity of Mashaba's culpability becomes apparent.
A certain Mario Khumalo has apparently registered a "South Africa First Party" with the Independent Electoral Commission. Students of global politics will find his talking points — including the name — painfully familiar.
"We are not xenophobic but we work in the interest of South Africans. It is about national identity and pride. There is no nationality called African. You are either South African‚ Angolan or Ethiopian. My (identity document) states that I am a South African‚ not African‚" he told TimesLive.
He apparently thinks there are 13 million foreign nationals in South Africa. (So many studies have shown that Americans over-estimate the numbers of minority groups including Muslims that reside in the United States.) This is wildly inaccurate. Fake news. Sad. But this willful belief in fantastic bullshit is a vital component of exclusionary, violent nationalism, both here and in the United States.
If this continues, there will be retaliations in Nigeria and elsewhere. (Late on Thursday afternoon, we received word that the MTN offices have been vandalised in Abuja...) This will create reinforcing cycles of violence both here and in other African countries. Ryan Cummings, director of the political and security risk management consultancy Signal Risk, has alerted Huffington Post SA to a WhatsApp voice note** of someone who sounds like a Nigerian person condemning the inaction of the South African government against the steady killings of foreign nationals in the country since 2008, and calling for retaliatory attacks against South African businesses in Nigeria and all over the continent. This person also calls for foreigners living in South Africa to retaliate against the violence with violence of their own.
Cummings said to me that the perception from the Nigerian government is that the South African government is unwilling to tackle the problem head-on.
"The fact that the Nigerian government has requested intervention by the African Union to address alleged xenophobia in South Africa indicates that they perceive the government of South Africa of lacking the political will to address the issue," he says.
"It is conspicuous that a communique delivered by the office of the Nigerian presidency specifically cited the number of Nigerians — said to be 116 — who have been killed in acts of xenophobic violence in South Africa over the past 12 months.
"This citation — the veracity of which has yet to be confirmed — highlights that the Nigerian government likely perceives that the South African government has failed to stem the phenomenon of xenophobia within its borders and that their inaction may be facilitating the violence," Cummings says.
Even though the various threats of retaliation appear to be limited to individuals, a new wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa could make retaliatory attacks elsewhere a reality, Cummings warns.
In the meantime, a xenophobic march is apparently planned for Friday February 24. Our government is not going to stop it. That's the reality. The air is thick with the flammable fumes of xenophobia. This march is very much a lit match.
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