Our nation’s ugly moment of xenophobia is almost incomprehensible

It feels like a pall has descended over the nation. The violence against other Africans living in our midst has been gut-wrenching, horrible and almost too much to comprehend. 

The Sunday Times story about the death of Emmanuel Sithole rang out like funeral bell in the tense silence of the past few weeks. The account of his death, short and almost terse, finally broke us.

In the wake of that moment we have had arrests, marches and even an imbizo held by a reluctant King Goodwill Zwelithini, who most agree sparked the latest flare up of violence with his comments that foreigners should go home. 

At the time of writing, Zwelithini had not yet spoken at the event, but his uncle Mangosuthu Buthelezi was delivering a long rant mostly aimed at Mondli Makhanya’s excellent article on both Buthelezi and the king’s unsavoury history leading up to these attacks.

We have also had some soul-searching as a nation, the images of Sithole’s murder having shocked us into it. But thanks to how hopelessly stratified our society is, those of us in the middle class can make some dangerous assumptions about what is happening in spaces in our country where resources and work opportunities are scarce and one’s future more bleak than we could even comprehend. 

So it was that I stumbled across a friend’s status update on Facebook that began:

“Yesterday a man threw excrement on a statue … Today men threw rocks on the head of a foreigner … If others don’t want to make the link I’ll make it explicit … Our foreign neighbors in this country are being torn to pieces literally because of a wave of racial unrest sparked by one foolish political science student.”

I was taken aback and told him the connection was a fallacious and dangerous one to make. He’s a humble guy, open to other viewpoints, and heard me out, admitting that he had not been following the news too closely and apologised for his mistake. A day later I saw another status update: someone announcing a prayer meeting about the “statues, race and the xenophobia attacks”. Huh?

So in case anyone else is wondering, no. These two moments in our country, while both headline-grabbing, share little else in common. 

I was also initially taken aback by the initial poo protest. But it quickly developed into a very sophisticated movement motivating for real change that demanded our attention – and quite legitimately so. It was very exciting in terms of activism and grassroots mobilisation for change, and comparable to youth driven movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. And of course, it was not violent but quite carefully and thoroughly argued, debated and motivated for through various channels by the students themselves, and other youth. 

The xenophobic violence was not sparked by the statue protests. It’s been happening for years, and first exploded in 2008 as most of us recall. There were no “statue protests” in the lead up then. Xenophobic sentiments have been simmering ever since, with outbursts here and there and it exploded again after Zwelithini’s statements, saying foreigners should go home. 

The protests around transformation are a necessary point in our history: 1994 was a compromised settlement made with a hostile white regime where things like symbols of the past were kept. Now a new generation of young South Africans are pursuing a different consensus and conversation and it us up to us to listen and understand and think about where we want to go as a country.

So don’t jump to easy or lazy conclusions. Our country is in a difficult space right now with some exciting and necessary things happening in terms of transformation, and some very ugly things happening in terms of violence. We need some serious pulling together and dialogue to get through all of this.


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