We are a steadfast lot, we South Africans. We’re not going to the dogs, we insist, even as the hounds of hell hump our legs and piss on our shoes.
We are not a xenophobic nation, we aver. Such confidence, even as mobs snake through Johannesburg, brandishing knobkieries and pangas, baying, “Mugabe is dead, go back to Zimbabwe.”
As is increasingly our custom, the facts don’t matter much. Nobody asks the 600 Nigerians evacuated on Thursday’s mercy flight, as to why they are turning their backs on our famed South African hospitality. Nobody asks the families of some 213 truckers killed in anti-foreign firebombings last year whether or not they think we are xenophobes.
Xenophobia, the x-word, has joined the k-word as unutterable in SA civilised society. In 2008, after more than 60 foreigners were killed and 100,000 were forced to seek safety in refugee camps, former president Thabo Mbeki vocally persisted with the line that xenophobia couldn't possibly exist in SA, since South Africans had “a long history of co-existence with other Africans”.
His successor, Jacob Zuma, was similarly unabashedly hypocritical. In 2015 — after another such outbreak of violence claimed seven migrant lives — Zuma told African Union leaders that the “actions of a few” South Africans did not justify the x-word slur. He cited as evidence that many had taken a public stand against attacks on foreigners, which “shattered the stereotype that South Africans are intolerant … against fellow Africans”.
This xenophobia denialism is also the prevalent tenor in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet, the argument being that since locals also suffer during the looting, it is mere criminality at play. Sort of a variation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights - “all within our borders are assaulted, torched and murdered equally”.
By this definition, there is no need to decry femicide, corrective rape, or farm murders. All are simply criminality.
That’s certainly the view of the parliamentary Justice, Crime Prevention and Security cluster. They issued a statement “noting with concern” that incidents of common lawlessness have been “characterised as xenophobic attacks”. That’s wrong. “SA is not a xenophobic country,” the ministers assured us.
As part of the attention-deflection from the x-word, ANC leaders sought refuge in deep intellectual analysis. Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, wearing his hat of general secretary of the SA Communist Party, blamed capitalism for violence against foreigners, as well as against women and children.
International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor blamed apartheid. Locals attacked “African brothers and sisters in a scramble for crumbs”, because of the economic inequalities that are the legacy of apartheid. No mention that these terrible inequalities have worsened under a quarter-century of ANC government.
Perhaps not noticing the blunt presidential words from Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Rwanda, ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule went so far as to claim that African leaders concurred with the ANC’s view.
“What I know, which is factual, is that our presidents, the presidents of Africa are talking, and they have analysed this correctly. They know what is happening. It is not acts of xenophobia, it's acts of criminality,” said Magashule.
The previous week Magashule’s response to violence had been to express regret that it was being directed at “people who have the same skin colour as us”, rather than those “many others with a whitish colour” … [who] have never been attacked, because they are also so-called foreigners.” At least he is now getting “on message” with the official ANC line.
But Magashule, not the brightest button in the haberdashery store, unfortunately then went and spoilt it all. He went on to commit an even more heinous act than using the x-word. He described some of the violence as “tribal battles”. Now, in the ANC lexicon, the t-word, tribal, is never acknowledged to be the cause of anything, implying as it would, ethnic cleavages within black SA society.
While the inappropriately named Ace should expect a chiding from the ANC’s political commissars for that little slip, xenophobic and tribal denialism is rife among black nationalists. They find it simply inconceivable to admit publicly that there is, indeed, a deep-seated antipathy among many black South Africans to their black “brothers and sisters”, both here and abroad.
It’s puzzling that this should be so, since similar fissures exist everywhere. That they persist, for example, subterraneanly in Europe — despite the lessons that should have been learned from centuries of harrowing conflict — is evidence that xenophobia, racism, tribalism, ethnic and religious conflicts are all part of a human propensity to scapegoat those who are obviously different.
The only credible performance from the office bearers in the grandly termed “sixth administration” of the Republic, was from Cyril Ramaphosa himself. When eventually flushed from under the presidential bed last week to belatedly address the attacks on foreign-owned shops and the torching of foreign-owned trucks, CR at least dared to use the x-word.
There was no justification for these attacks, he said. “We are a country that is completely committed against xenophobia.”
Well, perhaps not completely. Not yet.
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