A nation awash in self-loathing

Andrew Donaldson on the rise of what has been called “national-chauvinism” in South Africa

ON Thursday evening, a man named Witness Masela took a break from hunting down foreigners in the township of Actonville, on Gauteng’s East Rand, to tell The Times that President Jacob Zuma would be advised to let the mob continue driving immigrants from their homes and stealing their possessions.

“Does he feed us?” Masela asked. “Does he give us jobs? Does he love us like he loves his amakwerekwere [foreigners]? No, he does not. He treats us worse than foreigners. We pay our taxes but have no jobs. These foreigners don’t pay taxes but they have jobs. Zuma mustn’t come to us and speak nice. He must go to hell.”

Not much is known of Masela or of his circumstances, but on the merits of that outburst it is difficult imagine anyone, let alone the President, loving him. Masela, if anything, is representative of a country that, more than two decades after apartheid’s fall, remains awash in self-loathing and in dire need of therapy. 

The authorities’ response to the attacks has been shameful. Remember Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu’s mumbo-jumbo that foreign shopkeepers could not expect to co-exist peacefully with their local township counterparts unless they shared their trade secrets? That was in January, when the government was “assembling a task team to address violence and tension between local and foreign business owners”. What has happened since then? 

Quite a lot, it would seem – and all of it bad. There’s been a rash of denialist idiocy. Sometimes it was evident in the euphemisms. ANC secretary general Gweded Mantashe, in particular, has suggested that we should not speak of xenophobia, but afrophobia. 

But mostly it was the rubbish excuses. Even when he was doling out what some have labelled his strongest condemnation of the “shocking and unacceptable” attacks, the President leavened his remarks by suggesting that government was sympathetic to issues raised by “affected” citizens.

“These include complaints about illegal and undocumented immigrants in the country, the increase in the number of shops or small businesses that have been taken over by foreign nationals and also perceptions that foreign nationals commit or perpetrate crime,” Zuma told the National Assembly on Thursday.

On top of this came more denialist pap. “We reiterate our view that South Africans are generally not xenophobic. If they were, we would not have such a high number of foreign nationals who have been successfully integrated into our communities all over our country, in towns, cities and villages. There are socio-economic issues that have been raised which are being attended to.”

One such foreign national, you could say, is the Cameroon-born historian and political scientist, Achille Mbembe. This week he commented on the “devastating” draconian anti-immigration measures introduced in recent months.

“A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of ‘foreign’ staff at Wits University,” he wrote. “Horrific stories after horrific stories. Work permits not renewed. Visas refused to family members. Children in limbo in schools. A Kafkaian situation that extends to ‘foreign’ students who entered the country legally, had their visas renewed all this time, but who now find themselves in a legal uncertainty, unable to register, and unable to access the money they are entitled to and that had been allocated to them by [education] foundations. Through its new anti-immigration measures, the government is busy turning previously legal migrants into illegal ones.”

Mbembe also touched on something more sinister – the emergence among poor blacks and sections of the middle classes of what he termed “national-chauvinism”. It was particularly rabid. 

“National-chauvinism is rearing its ugly head in almost every sector of the South African society,” he said. “The thing with national-chauvinism is that it is in permanent need of scapegoats. It starts with those who are not our kin. But very quickly, it turns fratricidal. It does not stop with ‘these foreigners’. It is in its DNA to end up turning onto itself in a dramatic gesture of inversion.” 

Put another way, wherever there is talk of “nation-building” and “ubuntu”, there is national-chauvinism. The Zulu king, Illwill Zwelithini, you will recall, was at a “moral regeneration” rally when he prattled away about foreigners packing their bags and seemingly put into motion the horrific events of the past weeks.

It is laudable that Tim Flack, an official with the SA National Defence Force Union, has, in his personal capacity, approached the Human Rights Commission and laid a hate speech charge against Zwelithini. Flack has further threatened to take the matter to the Equality Court should the HRC not act against the royal parasite.

Here at the Mahogany Ridge we’re watching this space with considerable interest. 

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.