How to disguise your xenophobia

Gwen Ngwenya writes on Herman Mashaba's motte-and-bailey strategy in regards to foreigners

The motte-and-bailey strategy for hiding your xenophobia

How do politicians get away with being xenophobic? One of the most effective ways is to declare war against immigrants from the ‘bailey’, then defend yourself on the ‘motte’.

The term ‘motte-and-bailey’ is a medieval reference to a low-lying habitable area called the ‘bailey’ where people could live, and which formed the first line of defence against attack. Once breached, one could retreat to a tower, on a higher more defensible station. Once the enemy has been defeated from the top of the tower (the motte), inhabitants could then scurry back to the comfort of the bailey.

When speakers employ the motte-and-bailey strategy in argument they behave exactly like those medieval dwellers. They make an uninformed and often indefensible statement (the bailey), then when challenged on it, they retreat to an uncontroversial statement (the motte) in order to defend themselves from attack.

This strategy has been employed to great effect by those wishing to denigrate immigrants while upholding the pretence of being perfectly reasonable human beings. No politician has mastered this strategy quite like Johannesburg mayor, Herman Mashaba.

Speaking in Deipsloot, while on the DA national campaign trail in early 2019, Mashaba complained ‘I used to buy bread, I used to buy meat in supermarkets, in bakeries run by our own people in our communities, in our townships, in our villages. Today I can take you around here and within five minutes you are going to find a shop being run by everybody else except a South African.’

He continues this invective saying, ‘I cannot afford a situation when I visit my family in Hammanskraal in Ramotse, or I visit my family in Soweto, I go buy bread from someone I don’t know who this person is. I want to buy petrol from someone who’s living in Soweto. I must buy bread from someone living in Ramotse, born in and a product of Ramotse. That is what we want.’

When challenged Mashaba replied, ‘That is why we work with the South African Revenue Service, so that South African businesses are registered. Why then do we suggest that anybody can come from anywhere in the world and their businesses are not registered?’

The first comment is unqualified in its disapproval of having to buy from foreign owned shops (the argument on the bailey). When rightfully challenged on this he retreats to an argument about the necessity to register all businesses (the infallible position of the motte).

Here is another example; not long after that incident there was public concern about increasing piles of rubbish in Alexander township, Mashaba responded by saying ‘please assist us to get @HomeAffairsSA to deal with undocumented foreigner national in Alexander. Uncontrolled number of people in Alex is a challenge way beyond the @CityofJoburgZA competency.’

Dare to challenge Mashaba on why he thinks undocumented immigrants are linked to filth in Alex, as many did at the time, and he would accuse you of being unconcerned about undocumented persons and for wishing to bring South Africa to its knees through lawlessness.

He did this again recently on twitter (the modern politician’s favourite platform for cathartic release) where he retweeted an article titled ‘SA no place for unskilled foreigners’. The article puts a spotlight on the views of IFP leader, Velenkosini Hlabisa. Hlabisa speaks freely of how, ‘If you allow anybody, you will reach a situation that will be beyond control. People will say if these people were not here, we would have had a job of being a cleaner [for example]."

When it was pointed out that documentation is not only based on skills (e.g refugees, foreign national spouses etc.) and that this uninformed statement perpetuates ignorance, Mashaba retaliated by saying that “Those who call me Xenophobic for asking for the Rule of Law, they are EVIL in my world.” Except once again nobody was challenging Mashaba on the rule of law, but rather took issue with his sharing of an article that perpetuates the narrow view that only those with skills should be in the country.

Aside from the law, research such as this accessible piece illustrates that at worst low skilled immigrants have a marginal effect on employment either in a positive or negative direction. But it is likely they create jobs especially for South Africans in low skilled jobs. The presence of immigrants seems to exert more competitive pressure in higher skilled jobs where South African employment decreases slightly in response.

The thing about the bailey is that it is the habitable ground on which one actually would like to live, the higher up motte is useful only for cover. It is on the bailey that xenophobes reveal what they really think- but the xenophobe who still desires public respectability knows he is on losing ground there, and so never defends the indefensible. Mashaba comes out on top in most disputes on his views on immigrants because once he has elevated himself to the motte he is untouchable, and the detractors retreat.

It is a strategy which allows xenophobia to remain hidden. Because who can be against the rule of law, the need to pay one’s taxes or to have a registered business? The fact that Mashaba is capable of articulating the defensible position makes it less likely it is simply a sloppy misstatement when he chooses not to. The ‘motte-and-bailey’ strategy is not important because it exposes a flaw in Mashaba’s rhetoric, it matters because many in the public have learnt to hide deeply problematic views about immigrants behind this defence.

It has become common cause to speak of high crime rates and foreign nationals in the same breadth; then when asked to provide data about the propensity of immigrants to commit crimes versus South Africans, the speaker switches to a vague statement about the rule of law. The prober is often then accused of something unrelated like promoting uncontrolled immigration.

The South African public and political leaders hold some dangerous and misinformed views about foreign nationals, and when they don’t are otherwise deeply negligent in communicating on a subject that requires a high degree of care. Correcting misconceptions begins by being able to hold people to account for what they say in the open, not what they say when they are running for cover. Hopefully this helps people recognise the difference.

Gwen Ngwenya