As we move towards celebrating 21 years of South Africa’s democracy, many of our citizens appear hellbent on denying our brothers and sisters from elsewhere on the continent, and other hard-working foreigners, the fundamental human rights that the Constitution guarantees us.
There is a tragic irony in this. The struggle for those rights was supported, often at considerable sacrifice, by our African neighbours and other states whose nationals are now under attack. How ungrateful we are, and how short our memories.
We have squandered the goodwill once lavished on us from across the globe. We have betrayed the foundation laid over so many years by those who dreamed that South Africa would take its place as a leading moral force in the world.
Let us be blunt: the violence and looting that we have witnessed in KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere is a dark stain on our reputation. Mindful of the approaching local government elections and of the need to not appear out of step with their constituency, representatives of the government and the ruling party have spoken with forked tongues on the issue, tut-tutting about violence while expressing a measure of understanding for the attacks.
There can be no excuse for or defence of the horrors we are seeing. One does not expect a democratic South Africa to behave like the former apartheid state, where rights violations were routine and routinely defended.
One commentator, Elias Munshaya, offered the biting observation on Twitter that while some South Africans were toppling the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, others were trying to protect the borders he helped to cement.
King Goodwill Zwelithini’s provocative utterances undoubtedly helped fuel the current round of violence, and there is no point in him trying to deny them. By the same token, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba owes the king no apology for reprimanding him about his remarks.
ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe also struck entirely the wrong note by repeating his bizarre comments about setting up refugee camps to process “undocumented” foreigners. Many of those who are being attacked have residence rights or asylum, and are just as entitled to walk South Africa’s streets as Mantashe himself.
The Mail & Guardian has previously reported on the public xenophobia displayed by Cabinet ministers such as Lindiwe Zulu and Nomvula Mokonyane. Some within the business community are equally culpable. They include President Jacob Zuma’s son Edward, who has refused to apologise for his shameful remarks.
Yes, unemployment and economic distress are motivators – but so is a baser envy. Some South Africans are irked by the business competition offered by foreigners and the spectacle of Africans who are more successful than they are. Perhaps because of South Africa’s culture of entitlement, the entrepreneurial spirit and hard work so evident in immigrant communities has become a source of resentment.
Once it is accepted that certain groups fall outside South Africa’s constitutional dispensation, all minorities in the country are at risk. As Rivonia triallist Ahmed Kathrada told the Daily Maverick: “Xenophobia is racism.”
It would not take much for the groundswell against foreigners to be translated into violence against the Indian community, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, where there is a long and dishonourable tradition of sectarian hatred. There is now an attempt to paint South Africans of Indian origin as “co-conspirators”, by suggesting that foreigners are using their warehouses or that “they are working together against us, the Zulu majority”.
The crying need at this moment is for a united stand against these outrages from Zuma, Zwelithini himself, leaders of opposition political parties, religious leaders and other prominent South Africans. A national imbizo must be called, where all our leaders share the platform and are unequivocal in their condemnation of the xenophobic outrages – and that message needs to be transmitted to the security forces, too. Cabinet ministers and leading politicians and unionists, from Mantashe to Zwelinzima Vavi, must think twice before they speak or use social media to wink at intolerance.
The fear, hatred and envy of foreigners is an ongoing reality in South Africa and has to be confronted. There is no sense in playing semantic games, such as the claim that the violence is simple criminality, or the latest dodge by our politicians, who are blaming “Afrophobia”. We are not fooled and neither is the outside world.
In February 1990, barely two weeks after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela went to conflict-torn KwaZulu-Natal and told 200 000 followers what many of them did not want to hear. The province was beset by conflict, with the Inkatha Freedom Party and members of the mass democratic movement at each other’s throats. People were dying in “black-on-black” violence, fuelled by the hidden hand of the apartheid security forces.
Mandela showed leadership that day, preaching a message that was not popular with his followers: “Take your guns, your knives and your pangas and throw them into the sea,” he urged – to boos from some in the crowd. This is the sort of courageous stand that is needed now, not the doublespeak and word-mincing we are getting from our current batch of Lilliputian leaders.