Xenophobia: The past comes back to haunt us

Children at a camp in Germiston for those who fled xenophobic violece. (Gustav Butlex, M&G)

Children at a camp in Germiston for those who fled xenophobic violece. (Gustav Butlex, M&G)

Violence, racial tension, heated debates about what the heritage of South Africa should look like, and most recently, the spate of xenophobic attacks begs the question: Where did we go wrong and what does the future hold?

Over the past week, the African News Agency (ANA) spoke to four commentators working at grassroots level and within both political and civil society to attempt to explain why the current situation in South Africa seemingly depicts a pressure cooker waiting to boil over.

“Twenty one years into democracy, the promise of freedom has not yielded fruits,” said Stanley Henkeman, head of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s (IJR) Building an Inclusive Society programme.

“All the challenges of the past have come back to haunt us because all we’ve done is remove the structures of an apartheid regime but we have not dealt with the soul of this country”. 

This followed attacks on foreign nationals and looting of their shops which began in Isipingo, outside Durban over a months ago, and spread to other parts of the country. 

Mozambican national Emmanuel Sithole was killed in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township. The pictures of his attack made international headlines. The violence claimed the lives of seven people, three of them South African. Government deployed the army to assist police in hot spots.

Speaking in his capacity as deputy secretary general of the South African Communist Party (SACP), Deputy Minister of Public Works and member of the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress (ANC), Jeremy Cronin, echoed Henkeman’s words: “We are dealing with the ghosts of a past that has never truly been transformed”. The violence and anger witnessed in South Africa of late was not, however, something spontaneous or surprising.

“There have been continued waves of violence and anger, sometimes growing, sometimes quieter. This is not, however, a sudden appearance,” said Cronin.

“Our people are angry and frustrated that 21 years into democracy, not much has changed – and rightly so”. Ward councilor at Cape Town’s Masiphumelele township, Mzuvukile Nikelo, said South Africa was at risk of losing its identity as a nation which prided itself on reconciliation.

“We have so many issues we have not dealt with and we are angry at ourselves for this”.

But – like Cronin and Henkeman – Nikelo said the violent flare ups were part of an ongoing struggle against inequality and depravity.

“The violence and attacks we are seeing are a manifestation of a series of problems. These are not new problems,” he said, “These are economic issues, issues of economic deprivation”. 

ANC has ‘failed us’

Rhoda Kadalie, who was appointed by former late president Nelson Mandela to South Africa’s first Human Rights Commission and is now the executive director of Impumelelo Social Innovations, said the ANC had failed the country.

“They have failed us. They have failed to build a culture of social cohesion and the people of this country do not feel a part of it”.

Kadalie said a broken social fabric and lack of cohesion was worsened by “a simmering anger caused by poverty and unemployment”. Violence appeared to be indicative of this “torn social fabric”, the “woundedness” of which Henkeman spoke.

“Because of centuries of oppression, generational violence has been carried over and endured,” said Henkeman.

“We are, I believe, engaged in low intensity civil unrest”.

Henkeman, Kadalie, and Cronin all agreed that violence was deeply embedded in the South African psyche.

“South Africans are violent,” said Kadalie, “It is endemic”.

“Furthermore, we see the same structural violence from the apartheid era in democratic South Africa”. 

Cronin said the effects of centuries of inequality and the frustrations of not seeing adequate change was evident in the images of violence seen on a daily basis.

“You see it in daily violence, in our road rage, our taxi wars, and gender-based violence,” he said.

Cronin said come 1994 all South African became citizens with rights, formally so, but not substantially. Angered and frustrated with the slow pace with which change was coming, the “poor were bashing the poor for bread crumbs”, something which extended to attacks on foreign nationals. “This is not necessarily about the raw hatred for foreign nationals. This is about hitting out at whatever is closest at hand,” said Cronin. All four agreed xenophobic violence was located in working class communities with scarce resources.

“You will find xenophobia in communities which are economically challenged,” said Nikelo.

“In South Africa, we have large populations of foreign nationals living in the most economically vulnerable areas where there is strong competition for employment, for housing, and for survival,” he said.

Envy, anger

“Foreign nationals are welcome here. They have been accepted, but their presence does add extra stress”. Henkeman said that in the same way violence was often aimed at relatives such as women and children, attackers were hitting out at their neighbours – foreign nationals.

“Foreign nationals are in close proximity. They are in the heart of all this anger and frustration,” he said.

Kadalie said when foreign nationals move into poorer areas, assumptions about them fuel envy and anger.

“Working class communities scrambling to survive see foreign nationals come into the country and make it look easy to find employment and live without being dependent on government grants”. Cronin and Henkeman both said that although there were specific features to South African xenophobic violence, xenophobia was not a uniquely South African experience.

“There are specific South African characteristics but this is part of a nationalist global phenomenon,” said Cronin.

“There is, globally, a massive prejudice against migration”.

Cronin quoted statistics which stated over one billion people were crossing national borders on an annual basis, whether as legal immigrants or fleeing war, poverty, unemployment, and/or oppressive regimes.

“Migrants are dying trying to get into Europe and the third largest political party in Greece is publicly anti-migrant,” he said. “The situation we are in is unique in its manifestation – the naked violence,” said Henkeman.

“However, in Europe, foreigners are kicked out in their thousands but that’s seen as border control”.

“People simply do not want ‘others’ in their economic space,” he said. On reactions and responses to the attacks on foreign nationals, commentators had mixed feelings.

“We should be embarrassed about this,” said Cronin, “But we must not over exaggerate in the way we did with the ‘Rainbow Nation’ at the dawn of democracy”. “After 1994, we overly praised ourselves as the united Rainbow Nation. Yes, we beat the apartheid regime but it wasn’t without a fight nor was it entirely peaceful,” he said.

“Now, we are slipping to the other side of the spectrum in saying how shameful we are as a nation”. Cronin added that despite political differences, he was glad for the widespread condemnation from all political corners, including the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance. On the deployment of the military in xenophobic hotspots, Kadalie said it was indicative of President Jacob Zuma’s “cluelessness”. “Zuma does not have a clue. The use of the army shows that they do not have a clue. You don’t need an army. You need informed leaders,” said Kadalie.

She added that police could not serve their purpose because “police are in cahoots with these criminals”. Henkeman took a different stance on the role of the police officers, saying we should consider their predicament.

“We should spare a thought for police. They are accused of being traitors by South Africans if they protect foreigners and if they do not, they are seen as being in cahoots with criminals”.

Police used as football

“Police are the football of government’s inability to deal with this,” he said.

Henkeman added that to assume race was not a part of the violence and xenophobic attacks was a mistake.

“Do not fool yourself when you say this has nothing to do with race,” he said. “It is easy for us middle class South Africans to pontificate and judge because white suburbs are left unscathed”.

Henkeman added that the murder of Mozambican national Emmanuel Sithole further illustrated the role race played.

“You have a white cameraman with expensive equipment and he doesn’t get touched. The social capital of white skin still has value and attackers would rather turn on a black skin”. Kadalie said the issue with race and xenophobia was that South Africans too often ‘othered’ one another.

“Because of apartheid, it was tricky for South Africans to travel through the continent so we always speak of Africa as the ‘other’, as if we do not live in it”.

She said the same antipathy towards foreign nationals was directed at white South Africans.

“There is deep-seated antipathy towards white people. We keep referring to white South Africans as ‘them’, ‘those people’. This is exactly how the apartheid government spoke about black South Africans,” said Kadalie.

She said South Africans suffered from the “sin of exception-ism”.

“We think we can’t be racist because others were racist towards us”. Nikelo added that although violence was directed at black foreign nationals and black South Africans, anger towards white South Africans remained.

“White South Africans are not perceived as wanting to share their wealth with the rest of the country”.

However, Henkeman pointed out, the “woundedness of South African society” transcended racial lines, evident in white South Africans’ high walls and electric fencing.

“We are a deeply wounded, deeply traumatised society inflicting pain on other traumatised people”. But is there a way forward out of the violence, the racial discrimination, and the attacks on foreign nationals? How will South Africa go about healing its wounds?

Kadalie suggested South Africans take a leaf out of the Afrikaans community’s book.

“Look at Afrikaners. In all their festivals and events, they create social cohesion”. Nikelo called for stronger community leadership and greater accountability.

“Strong and accountable leaders in communities are able to ease tensions and when communities look up to them, they will do what leaders ask of them”.

Cronin said perhaps it was time for South Africa to infuse more social elements into the country to tackle the social triggers for violence and anger.

“There cannot be this great leap into a romantic era of socialism but we can infuse social elements,” he said.

“We have to strengthen the working class, re-industrialise South Africa, build a solidarity economy, and a developmental state which is democratic”. “We have to work closely with social movements such as community policing forums and neighbourhood watches and we need to unlock ourselves from a third world growth path. We need to leverage our natural gifts and create South African jobs, not Chinese jobs,” he said. Henkeman said South Africa was in dire need of good leadership and the way forward would include electing better leaders.

However, he said, despite having to live with the votes made for the next few years, South Africans could begin to tackle challenges through sincere and honest conversations about inequality.

“What we need is to go knee-deep into this work, work that will be very messy,” said Henkeman.

“Because if we don’t, what we see today will look like a Sunday picnic in comparison”. ANA



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