Some of the nicest people I know are saying of the xenophobic attacks, “Violence is not the answer, but…” This sympathy for perpetrators is even coming from foreign nationals.
To be sure, they don’t believe that vigilantism is a fitting response to allegations of criminality on foreigners’ part, but they’re unsettled by softer (perhaps more civic) questions, such as shopkeepers’ lack of tax certificates. “It begs the question, what are foreigners fighting for exactly? Are they fighting to trade illegally, but in peace?” asked one Deniss Munyuni, who described himself as a foreigner. By the time anyone asks that question, though, it means there’s a prior question that’s been neglected: what deliverables are the state responsible for before punishing its citizens?
Our government’s foreign and immigration policies are qualified by its constitutional commitment to human rights. These don’t leave wriggle room for the “quiet diplomacy”, “respect for sovereignty” and immunity afforded to international war criminals (notwithstanding that war crimes are tried selectively by international regulatory bodies based in the global north). When we see human rights abuse against women, LGBTI persons, civilians and the like, when we see other governments fall to a corruption that jeopardises their ability to uphold those rights or increases the likelihood that minorities will be scapegoated for state failings, our government is supposed to speak out decisively on those issues.
It’s also supposed to speak without hypocrisy, having first cleaned its own house and kept the economy alive for its people. Our leaders should support one another, if need be, through constructive criticism — and sanctions. This would change the reasons why people cross our borders.
These are the implications of the social contract theory, and when this contract is violated there are protests or tax revolts against the governing party, or that party is voted out. When this contract is violated, it shouldn’t be resolved through citizens directly interfering with foreigners. However they got here and whatever they’re doing, they’re the government’s problem and the government is in turn 110% its citizens’ problem.
Enforcing the laws derived from those policy instruments on government’s behalf is so far above our paygrade, so beside laypersons’ jurisdiction, that it indicates that although the plane is airborne, the pilot is dead. “Are [foreign nationals] fighting to trade illegally but in peace?” What’s the distinction between legal and illegal, and who’s enforcing it — and how can there possibly be peace if those prior questions haven’t been handled decisively? There’s supposed to be civic action and tax revolts long before attacks on foreign nationals.
Further to this, looking after both South Africans and foreign nationals is nowhere near a zero-sum game: our government looks after multinational corporations and European property owners very well. The only foreign nationals who are being picked upon are those who happen to be black. The pilot isn’t dead: he’s alive but he’s flying a private jet that neither we nor black foreign nationals are on. Who’s actually on board?
A local’s claim to exclusive trading rights doesn’t make sense because the domestic informal sector (which is what’s kept citizens marginalised by the mainstream formal economy from civil war) isn’t being engaged by government institutions any more deeply than foreign nationals are. I can trade using my ID tomorrow morning, and since no one will ask me for that here, it’s unlikely anyone would ask me for it in another country. In the words of a store owner who blamed the situation on youth unemployment and low economic growth: “No one’s got a label in his store that says ‘South African born’.”
This means both the local and the foreigner are economic squatters — refugees, to borrow Helen Zille’s term for people who moved from the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape — and they could be anywhere. Their nationality is neither here nor there; it’s not bankable, it cannot be exchanged and it’s not relevant. Why are lives lost over it while there are practically no heads rolling over state capture? It’s one thing for completely disenfranchised people to misdirect their frustrations at “the other”; it’s another thing entirely that South Africans with access to information want to add a “but” to their condemnation of violence.
We can’t have it both ways. We can’t forgive government its many sins and not have a rise in criminality (supposedly by foreign nationals) or the country sold from under our feet to foreign interests that are leagues more powerful than foreign persons. Voting for this government five terms in a row demands we be on much friendlier terms with our neighbours from the rest of this landmass, because thousands of us are just one upheaval away from needing the help and hospitality of people from across it. Our defence of the nation and nationalism is based on the myth that we have a country to fall back on, but if we have to defend that country ourselves then the law isn’t functioning and there’s nothing left for us to defend. It’s too late to even strike out at the wrong enemy.
Most of us black South Africans barely have title deeds, and we’re lucky if we can get banks to trust us with debt. We must realise this, and hopefully regain some humility before we have nowhere left to turn.
Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex. He is the author of You Have to Be Gay to Know God (Kwela Books, 2018)