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The awful politics of xenoophobia

South Africans have a certain reputation for public robustness. We fight, scream, and shout at each other, all in the name of deciding what would make for a better country. At times, though, this robustness threatens to derail us at a time when many people could be vulnerable to serious harm. On Friday in Pretoria, violence broke out during a march planned by people who were "opposed to illegal immigrants". The police struggled to maintain order. And instead of speaking with one voice, everyone in a leadership position was busy pointing fingers, particularly at Joburg Mayor Herman Mashaba.

There was plenty of notice that xenophobic violence was coming. In stark contrast to the violence that claimed nearly 60 lives in 2008, and the awfulness that marked the violence in KwaZulu-Natal two years ago, last week we knew that a group of people in Mamelodi were going to march against the presence of foreign nationals in their community. They said that it was a march against crime, but when pushed on their motives it became clear that the real issue was simply that they did not like people who were not like them.

When the marching and the clashes started on Friday, the police immediately moved to contain the protests. A group of Somali men grouped together, partly perhaps for protection, partly perhaps to cause their own violence. This was the kind of thing that only leads to trouble. One of the oldest insults among human beings can be boiled down to this: He is a foreigner, and therefore a barbarian. And it is also universal among societies everywhere; when people feel their lives are getting worse and hopeless, they will turn on people they see as different, or somehow not being "like them".

Situations like these need cool heads, and plenty of disciplined force from the police. But a problem of this kind also needs leadership.

On Friday morning, the ANC released a statement about the xenophobic violence, essentially calling for calm. But by the third paragraph of the statement, it was already attacking Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba, saying he should be "singled out for particular mention", and attempting to blame him for the violence. They claimed further that "it was the reckless statements of Mayor Mashaba that lit the tinderbox of hatred in the first place".

Where the ANC is absolutely correct is to criticise Mashaba for his words and actions on this issue in the last few months. His comments about "illegal immigrants", and his almost wilful and deliberate conflation of the words "immigrants" and "criminals", was wrong, perhaps bordering on the criminal. As a public representative, he should be ashamed of himself, and the DA should be ashamed of itself for not smacking him down in public. His comments in this regard are surely against everything the DA claims to stand for.

It is hard to know why Mashaba made them in the first place. Maybe he genuinely believes there is a problem and that it needs to be addressed. Perhaps he feels that it's a way to get votes. As the US and other places have recently demonstrated again, being "antiimmigrant" can play successfully to prejudice. Or he could just be prejudiced himself, like so many other South Africans, and people all over the world.

But to say that he is responsible is to utterly miss the greater context of what is happening in South Africa these days. And, worse, it is to forget the role the ANC government played over the last few years.

Last week, before the march, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba held a press conference specifically about the xenophobic tensions. He said he had met with the organisers of the march, and had pleaded with them to act responsibly. It was the kind of act that you would expect someone in his position to do; it was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, his department could also be accused of playing a role in demonising foreign nationals in the first place. It is his officials who deport people, and decide which foreign nationals get to stay and which get to be kicked out. And, depending on where you stand on these things, it is also his department that has largely failed to deal with the problem. The perception has grown that people who are foreign are here illegally, because government has failed to stop them from being here.

But it is not only Gigaba's fault. It is impossible to police this properly, the dynamics of economics, geography and the human nature to desire a better life for yourself and your children are all against him. With the best will in the world, Gigaba is going to be unable to change those perceptions, or even make much of a difference on the ground. Stopping human migration requires the kind of a control over a population that North Korea has. Anything less will just not work.

Gigaba himself has a fairly decent track record in this regard. He at least is not afraid to call xenophobia what it is, and to label a xenophobic march a xenophobic march. His political boss, President Jacob Zuma, appears unable to do even that, claiming on Friday that there were even foreign nationals in these marches, because they were actually "anti-crime". Proof, once again, that it's not only the facts that are alternative, sometimes it's the entire universe.

Gigaba once did something that very few other ministers have done on this issue. He raised the ire of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini. In 2015 Zwelithini had been accused of making comments that were seen as an incitement to commit violence against foreign nationals. A few days later, violence did in fact erupt in KwaZulu-Natal. Gigaba made a comment that leaders should behave responsibly, which appeared to have angered the king.

In the end, the SA Human Rights Commission decided, controversially, to exonerate Zwelithini. And the ANC, certainly in public, has failed to publicly criticise the king for these comments. Which surely suggests they do not believe that there is a link between what he said and the violence that followed.

It is important to follow this logic through to the bitter end. If the Zulu king makes comments like this and does not incite violence against foreign nationals, while the mayor of Joburg makes similar comments and does incite violence, then who has more power? Is the ANC seriously suggesting that Herman Mashaba, as a DA mayor, has a greater moral authority and plain old influence over people in Tshwane than King Goodwill Zwelithini does in KZN? And if that is the case, it surely follows then that the ANC is actually in much greater political trouble than we thought.

In politics, it is usually a mistake to build your enemy up, to make them look powerful. In their haste to be seen to condemn Mashaba, that is exactly what the ANC is doing. It made him look powerful, as if he had the ability to shape events, that he has this magical authority over people. Who, for the record, weren't even in "his" city, but in Pretoria.

But what is also being forgotten here is the other actions of national government. As the CEO of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, Neeshan Balton, pointed out on Friday, it was national government that decided to roll out "Operation Fiela", whose aim was action against foreign nationals. And it is national government alone that controls the police. And thus the officers who are famous for rounding up foreign nationals and stealing cash from them. It's not about what you say as a leader, it's also about what you do. Our government has failed to do much to change attitudes, to present any kind of example.

Mashaba himself said, in a statement issued on Monday, that he had tried to set up several meetings with Gigaba to discuss this entire issue, and invited him to a city lekgotla on the issue. Mashaba says he declined that invitation. But it would appear Gigaba is happy to discuss the issue, just not with Joburg's DA mayor. Rather, according to Mashaba, he has accepted an invitation to speak at an event hosted by the Joburg ANC, and its leader, and former Joburg mayor Parks Tau.

No matter how you look at it, that is playing politics in times when the national government should know better.

To look at this situation from a neutral standpoint, should such a place exist, is to realise that everyone is at fault here. Mashaba should not have said what he said. The ANC national government has not provided an example of how to treat foreign nationals, despite often saying the right words. People of influence who say things that are xenophobic are let off the hook.

Very few of the people who call themselves leaders in our society can escape blame here. And if any of them think that they can blame someone else, it's time they took a look in the mirror.

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(c) 2017 Africa Focus

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