/ 4 September 2012

Marikana, Mayfair and ‘legitimate hate’

Police and government claim they take xenophobia seriously. This is belied by the persistence of groups like the South African Blacks Association.
Police and government claim they take xenophobia seriously. This is belied by the persistence of groups like the South African Blacks Association.

These threats and attacks are not easily pinned on greedy capitalists, trigger-happy police or the racialised injustice that is apartheid's bequest.

This is violence that fits uneasily in our inherited and internalised scripts of state oppression and labour exploitation (for those on the left) or party politics and injudicious unionism (for the right).

Nor does it echo with established visual vernaculars – men with spears, armoured personnel carriers, tear gas and burning tyres – that South Africa has so long presented to the world.

This violence, real and threatened, is buried so deeply in the South Africa psyche and social fabric that we deny it. It reflects forms of hate and coercion that dare not speak their name.

Beyond uncomfortable resonances with apartheid oppression and our emotional revulsion to watching police fire on striking mineworkers, what should bother us most about the Marikana massacre is the injustice and mismanagement of conflict.

We call on the government and others to do more, to strive for more equitable working conditions, to open avenues for consultation, and to condemn violence whether by police or enraged citizens. Yet we – South African citizens, residents and the government – pay scant attention as messages of hate against foreigners are posted across Mayfair in Johannesburg, foreign owned businesses are burned or boarded up, and groups across the country call for the banning of foreign land and business ownership – and occasionally the banning of foreigners all together.  

Over the past two weeks, we have all decried the injustices by Cosatu, constables and capitalists while largely overlooking the continuing and ever acute terror meted out daily by our fellow citizens.

A group calling themselves the South African Blacks Association (Saba) has been terrorising foreigners in Mayfair. For almost a year, these uniformed self-style vigilantes have been threatening business owners and residents, organising occasional raids and spreading hate. More recently they posted a manifesto warning foreign "Dogs/Pigs/Bastards" to "read it nicely because may be it is your last time to read".

The propaganda that followed would have found many a friend in in Nazi-era Germany or pre-genocidal Rwanda. This is hate speech of the highest order. In northern Limpopo, the police have been "selectively targeting" foreign-owned businesses, shutting them down for bylaw infringements while similar South African shops remain unscathed.

Across the country, South African commercial associations have been calling for an outright ban on foreigner-owned businesses. In some instances, such prohibitions are aimed not only at foreigners, but at South Africans from the wrong place, the wrong ethnic group or the wrong political party.

The police will likely respond that these are just petty criminals and they want to avoid drawing attention to the hateful words of a small minority or give them a stage to spread the incendiary messages that set townships alight in May 2008.

They will also tell us that the police and government take these issues seriously. This is belied by the persistence of these groups – Saba has been visibly operating for a year while provoking little police response.

Somali shops across the Western Cape (and elsewhere) have been attacked by neighbours – killing many while eliciting almost no investigation or judicial inquiry.

Ignoring our duty to protect is little better than opening fire. To be fair, there has been a response. But rather than condemn the hatred, violence, and empirically unfounded vitriol about foreigners threatening the country's economic and physical security, our political leadership – and the ANC in particular – has responded by implementing and proposing policies that legitimise such hate.

Sprinkled across the ANC's "Peace and Stability" policy discussion document are just the kind of calls for tightening immigration, reducing the number of asylum seekers, and limiting foreigner ownership of business and land that Saba and groups like the Gauteng Business Forum are demanding.

Were it the South African Whites Association posting a message, big business working to shut down struggling spaza shops and shebeens, or the National Party banning black owned business from white areas, we would be indignant. But the threats, violence and oppression of foreigners – many whom are legally guaranteed the right to work in South Africa – are not the kind of "legitimate hate" that causes our blood pressure and voice to rise.

For that matter, neither is persistent violence against gays, lesbians or a range of other "irregulars" and "outsiders". Instead, they are largely ignored. Or worse, endorsed.

To be sure, the violence and threats thereof lack the theatrical drama of Sharpeville and Marikana, violence that we must continue to condemn. But if we are looking to silence echoes of apartheid era racial and ethnic repression, we must take just as seriously these less visible threats.

Loren B. Landau is Director of the African Centre for Migration & Society at Wits University in Johannesburg. He can be reached at [email protected]