I fear for the future here in South Africa

Pretoria's response to the xenophobic attacks was to turn defensive, deploy the army against civilians and raid foreigners' shops instead of showing leadership. (Paul Botes, M&G)

Pretoria's response to the xenophobic attacks was to turn defensive, deploy the army against civilians and raid foreigners' shops instead of showing leadership. (Paul Botes, M&G)

  The Sunday Times pictures of Emmanuel Sithole being butchered like a cornered animal by Afrophobes in Alexandra, South Africa last week will remain etched in my mind for a long time. It is difficult to even grasp the savagery that has been unleashed on Mozambicans, beginning with the burning of Ernesto Alfabeto Nhaumauve at the Ramaphosa informal settlement in 2008. That image remains lodged in the deepest parts of my being, the sheer horror of it impossible to dislodge.

Though many have tried to come up with any number of reasons to explain these terrible incidents, none of them have made any compelling sense. There is no amount of logic, no matter how perverted, that can adequately explain, let alone justify such barbaric behavior.

On South Africa’s freedom day, President Jacob Zuma offered what may be part of the answer. He said that “there is a lot of anger in our society and a propensity to use violence, which results from years of apartheid dehumanisation”. While some were quick to suggest that he was once again passing the buck and blaming the past, there’s a sense in which the scale of the violence that has been unleashed almost without warning comes from somewhere deep.

But it also suggests that what we have seen, though frightening, is still only the opening salvo in this game of death and violence. This kind of hatred of fellow Africans can only lead to more frightening social disasters.

This brings me to my next point. There are those who like to say that the middle class is immune from this kind of violence, protected as they are by their high walls and gated communities. But I think they miss the way in which this hatred manifests itself in the most surprising ways.

Whereas for now the violence has expressed itself in terms of South Africans against foreigners, who amongst us cannot foresee that soon, very soon the next victims might be Chinese, Indians, Whites, Vendas, Sotho, Tsongas etc. We already have a situation threatening to get out of control in Malamulele in Limpopo that has already seen the Tsongas pitted against the Vendas. Even though government has tried to downplay this issue, it has continued to fester. There is no solution or effective leadership in sight.

Like many other situations that quickly grow beyond their initial cause, this is a ticking time bomb and an acute national malaise that requires urgent and pragmatic solutions. Central to a solution is a leadership that leads from the front and does not pander to short-term nationalism.

But I must say that by and large I am still stunned by what has been said in the past few weeks in South Africa. Instead of providing leadership, those at the helm displayed lots of what is wrong with our continent. But it has not come out of the blue, as some have mistakenly suggested.

Allow me to share a frightening encounter I experienced in 2011. Nic Dawes was editor of the Mail & Guardian and had published a cartoon of President Zuma which some found vulgar and disagreeable. A South African who I not only considered a friend, but one of the leading lights of the continent and a fellow Christian, sent me an angry text message which read in part: “It seems to me that you really abuse our hospitality.”

And there I was thinking South Africa was my home. At a subsequent meeting to try and smoke the peace pipe and in the presence of Mail & Guardian chairman Peter Vundla, it became obvious that this man that I had long considered a dear friend had been carrying around a grudge against African foreigners who he said were liked by whites. He went on to say African foreign nationals driving around in their big cars in Sandton stuck out like sore thumbs. According to his experience Zimbabwean professionals always got preference over South Africans. He said something about having to deal with his foreign domestic staff.

I was taken aback that someone that was then counted as one of the new billionaires could carry so much vitriol within him. But if his attitude was a surprise, what he said and truly shocked me most was his surprising assertion that xenopbobia was not spontaneous but orchestrated. He reinforced that I was a fool if I thought that xenophobia was spontaneous. He added, chillingly, that “there is something brewing and you might find yourself inadvertently in it.” The 2014 national elections were a couple of years away and this terrified me.

At that time my friend was very close to the Zuma administration and his later promise to pray for me was little comfort. On the same day and at the hotel deep in Sandton, a high ranking Zimbabwean diplomat with close ties to the Zuma administration had met me to tell me that “these people” were not happy that I owned a key national asset. And he wondered if I would consider diluting my stake and investing in Zimbabwe instead. I reminded my Zimbabwean compatriot that mine was the largest privately owned media house in Zimbabwe.

What this incident alerted me to was a toxic confluence between those in power and their proxies who masquerade as businessmen. It has been said that there is nothing as toxic as an economic elite that owes its wealth and influence directly to those in power.

I relate this incident firstly, because there is anecdotal evidence that the recent outbreaks of Afrophobia were clearly planned and not spontaneous. The attacks in Durban and Alexandra took place soon after Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini’s unbelievable statements calling for the expulsion of foreigners. His comments were followed by messages on social media and posters urging foreign Africans to leave or else. The King has disappointed many with his dogged refusal to apologise. He arrogantly stated that had he actually demanded foreigners to leave, things could have been worse.

But I also do so because I am convinced that Afrophobia is stronger in many South African boardrooms and corridors of power than in the townships and informal settlements. Public pronouncements by President Zuma in relation to “don’t think like Africans in Africa” and Lindiwe Zulu’s demand that foreign traders must share their business secrets with locals betray this thinking in the corridors of power. If these statements can be made in public I shudder to think what is said behind closed doors in government corridors and corporate South Africa.

I know there has been some debate around the exact nature of the recent attacks. The reason I call this Afrophobia and not xenophobia is because it is a particular hatred of immigrants of African descent, both documented and undocumented. Yes, some Pakistanis and other foreigners have been victims, but it is important to acknowledge that this hatred and violence has largely been targeted at fellow Africans. My sense is that this hatred has its roots in apartheid, which told South Africans that they were oppressed but far better off than Africans north of the Limpopo, and tragically they believed this.

But I also do believe that the butchering of Emmanuel Sithole is a turning point and a watershed in many respects. For the first time many in South Africa encountered the ugly consequences of hating fellow black Africans and were shocked by what this could become. And this was not the picture that many South Africans wanted the world to see of themselves and their country. On the other hand the international community was finally let in on how South Africans deal with those who are not welcome and perceived as threats. It is one thing to whisper these prejudices in board rooms and government corridors but it’s a different thing altogether to witness the live and brutal consequences of that prejudice.

This murder in front of cameras and the damage it did both to South Africa’s moral leadership on the continent as well as to brand South Africa is partly why many chose to march to distance themselves from this crime against humanity. Has the prejudice and hatred disappeared after the marches? I don’t think so. In fact listening to radio talk shows it is clear that the hatred is alive and well. Calls that “these people” must go back to their countries are still very strong.

Sithole’s murder is a turning point because for the first time Africa spoke openly and strongly against this crime against humanity that has seen many killed with few prosecuted. The gruesome pictures of Sithole’s murder forced African governments to speak out and for Africans to take to the streets in protest. The unequivocal message from this rebuke is that there are consequences to barbaric behavior in a civilized world.

Faced with slow growth in its domestic market and a hostile western world, many South African companies have ventured to the north of the continent for greener pastures. It’s early days yet but some such as MTN, MultiChoice, Shoprite, SAB Miller and Standard Bank have done very well while many more are convinced that Africa is key to their survival. African consumers took a very negative view of the violent attacks on their compatriots and were prepared to retaliate. Things might not be the same next time around. These are obviously unintended consequences that had not been part of the calculations of those that plotted this violence.

Sadly the initial shock to the murder and related incidents of violence and the outpouring of condemnation has given way to an unhelpful defensive stance. That Zuma could ask why the foreigners are in South Africa in the first place has been seen as eroding whatever goodwill flowed from responses made immediately after the violence.

Good leadership demanded an unequivocal condemnation and prosecution of the perpetrators and an equally strong statement that nothing under the sun justifies this kind of behavior. Period! You don’t witness a brutal killing, regret that murder and then proceeded to rationalise why someone was killed in the first place.

I agree with Zuma that part of the problem is that the South African leadership has not explained the hugely significant role and tremendous sacrifices that Africa north of the Limpopo played to the downfall of apartheid. I still don’t understand the reluctance by many who were in exile to speak about the role played by the Frontline states, the OAU and Africans in general to the current democratic dispensation in South Africa. Africa’s role is mentioned in passing as if it is something to be ashamed of or something that takes away from the struggle.

The acknowledgement of Africa’s role to the struggle against apartheid is an essential part of sending the message that we were one during apartheid and we are one today. Equivocating on the causes of violent crimes against black Africans and knee-jerk and panic responses like deploying the army to Alexandra and raiding foreign owned shops in Mayfair are temporary band aids, perhaps mostly brand aids. Visible and visionary leadership from the front is what is required to communicate the message that immigration is as old as the human race.

Many undocumented African immigrants pay corrupt immigration officers to gain entry into South Africa and this is what needs to be dealt with urgently and decisively. Once in the country those who enter in this way pay corrupt police offers many times over to remain and work in the country. This too must be stopped.

South Africa needs a progressive immigration regime that allows only those with badly needed skills and investments to grow the economy and create more jobs. Immigration should solve skills shortages rather than create social and economic problems.

  Part of the answer to “why these Africans are not in their countries” is that South Africa has reneged on its responsibility as a regional power. For instance when Mugabe was destroying the Zimbabwean economy and killing his own citizens, the South African government gave him cover.

Zimbabweans escaped Mugabe’s terror into South Africa. When Mugabe was exhibiting his own brand of Afrophobia by stripping Zimbabweans of Zambian, Malawian, Mozambican, British, South African parentage of their citizenship the silence from Pretoria was deafening. Being a regional super power carries with it such responsibilities as standing up against human rights abuses, stolen elections and dictatorship.

South Africa is a sovereign country entitled to set its own rules as to who is allowed to come and work within its borders and nobody in their right mind can dispute that. The long term solution to the influx of undocumented Africans is that South Africa improves its border controls and eliminates illegal entry. But it also has to eliminate the corruption that is rampant amongst its police and immigration officials. This has only made a terrible situation worse.

But crucially, South Africa must play its role in contributing to sound economies in the region. If it wants to be taken seriously as a regional power it must stand up for the values that promote democracy, human rights and growing stable economies in the region and the continent.

Only then can we be certain that the horror of the public lynching of Emmanuel Sithole will not be repeated in the name of whatever it is that makes four young men become brazen killers even before they are 23 years old. It will take bravery and honesty of the sort we have not seen during the Afrophobia violence to restore South Africa’s badly tarnished image.

  Trevor Ncube is an African from Africa and the owner of the Mail & Guardian. Follow him on Twitter @TrevorNcube. 


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