On Thursday President Jacob Zuma sat in Parliament, a spectator, as the third largest party there accused the two biggest parties of conspiring against it and the speaker of the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete, of acting on the basis of racial fear.
The Economic Freedom Fighters said its leader Julius Malema had been forcefully ejected from the National Assembly in August 2014 “because we are black and we are young people”. And Mbete had not similarly removed white men representing the official opposition “because they are white. Because you are scared of white people.”
As the debate continued, and escalated to shouting and heckling, police in the Durban city centre scrambled to keep angry groups of people away from a peace march to show support to foreigners under threat of xenophobic attacks.
When Zuma did take the podium, he immediately described violence against foreigners as “shocking and unacceptable”, and expressed condemnation “in the strongest possible terms”. Half a dozen breaths later he expressed sympathy with the socioeconomic frustrations of those meting out the violence.
Even as Zuma was outlining the government’s approach to dealing with those frustrations, confirmation came from Mozambique that local workers there were protesting against the involvement of South African citizens in an energy infrastructure project.
The session was made a nearly perfect reflection of the politics underlying the failure to address xenophobia as Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane referred to unacceptable statements by people “in powerful positions” and later to “royalty”, but stopped short of naming Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini.
In his reply to Zuma, Malema did name Zwelithini, but only to stress that his party accepted Zwelithini’s explanation that his remarks on foreigners had been misinterpreted, and that Malema did not hold Zwelithini responsible.
He was followed by Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who still considers himself something of a prime minister to Zwelithini, who ran out of time on the podium before being able to speak about “my king”.
In the midst of this careful dance around a king who could significantly influence local government elections next year, none of the major parties touched on what academics have been saying since the 2008 xenophobic violence: that it was driven in large part by political contestation in communities, with foreigners targeted in order to unite communities against a common enemy; and that a lack of unequi-vocal condemnation from national government, and a failure of criminal consequences for the perpetrators, helped fan the flames.
As the debate continued, police in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng scrambled to put in place intelligence operations and the logistics necessary to protect foreigners over what they feared could well be a bloody weekend. Station commanders reported that they had not received the information and extra resources they were promised after the last serious flare-up of xenophobic violence in Soweto in January.
They were cynical on hearing that Zuma had ordered his security and economic ministers to “work faster”.
‘God only knows what we did to deserve this’
“It sucks wen ur baby sister pops out her eyes and asks u. wat did we do 2 deserve this … Mungu mwenyene (God only knows)” – this was 23-year-old Aisha Ismail’s* WhatsApp status on Tuesday.
Ismail arrived in South Africa from war-torn Burundi as a little girl nearly two decades ago.
She was shopping in Durban’s city centre with her mother and aunt on Tuesday afternoon, when a mob began assaulting foreigners and looting their shops.
“We were in Prince Edward Street when we noticed shopkeepers were beginning to close up,” she told the Mail & Guardian. “We wondered why they were doing so; we continued minding our own business and went into a spice shop that was open.
“I was sitting outside waiting for my mum and aunt when I saw some women talking in Zulu …they thought I couldn’t understand them … they were saying things were going to be happening soon.”
A few minutes later, Ismail saw groups of people running into neighbouring shops owned by Ethiopians. “They were running in and pulling things down – I ran into the spice shop and told my mother people were being attacked. She pulled my aunty and I right inside to the very back of the shop.”
The owner of the spice shop, a South African of Indian descent, closed the doors, and sheltered Ismail and her relatives.
“We were inside for about 45 minutes – we could hear the noise and we stood and watched what was happening on the CCTV camera footage. We saw this woman who looked so happy saying in Zulu about one of the shopkeepers who was being assaulted, ‘Ja – he must go.’ It was so strange.”
Ismail was in telephonic contact with her father at their flat, also located in the city centre, who kept them informed about the situation outside and told them when he felt it was safe for them to go home. “The shopkeeper told us if we were still afraid we could stay, but we left – he opened the back entrance for us and we walked home really fast.”
But the journey home wasn’t pleasant. “There were groups of women who were just staring at us, and one of them was laughing out aloud and saying, ‘You’re finally going home … we are going to have this place all to ourselves. Go home. We don’t want you people here – I’m so happy today – they are going home – whether they want to or not, they have to go home’,” said Ismail.
“I just smiled at them and kept walking – but once we were home we started thinking about everyone who wasn’t home, like my brother who was at university. It was hectic.”
Ismail found it difficult to articulate how she felt. “I’m just … I just don’t know. I’ve never had to feel like this in a long time. It’s hard. It’s so sad. You expect that because you have been here for so long you’ve integrated – it’s so ironic.”
Her brother Omar* (19), who eventually returned home safely, was more vocal: “People should not be happy about the fact that they are attacking us because South Africa talks about ‘the rainbow nation’ and diverse cultures but right now they are not practising what they teach us.
“I think the major reason for these attacks is because people are not educated about different places in Africa – they only learn about what happened during apartheid but have little knowledge about what happened in other places in Africa. We ran away from our homes to find peace but we can’t seem to find it.” – Fatima Asmal
*Not their real names.