/ 1 December 2021

What the Omicron variant and Mashaba’s election ticket have in common

Zimbabwean Nationals wait outside Home Affairs in Pretoria for days for permits in 2021. (Madelene Cronjé)

“The road to genocide in Rwanda was paved with hate speech.” — William Schabas

There happen to be three fascinating analogies between the xenophobic election ticket (very popular in the recent local government elections) and the new Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the coronavirus which causes the disease known as Covid-19. They are both opportunistic  — and they are also both state crimes. They are also both infectious. I will attempt to flesh out these overlaps in this piece.

Consider, for example, how an opportunist such as Herman Mashaba and his innocuously named ActionSA — Mashaba is certainly not the only politician who took advantage of this terrible psychic blot on our national memory — made significant political inroads on a xenophobic election forum. This is an absolute disgrace and is compounded by the department of home affairs’ very recent announcement that, in 2022, at least 250 000 Zimbabwean permits would not  be extended.

With his latest announcement extending the national state of disaster amid the excitement caused by the latest opportunist move of the Covid virus, our Ramasaviour might also be jumping on the popularity bandwagon. His suggestion that vaccine mandates are the way forward, might be a desperate attempt to stay relevant after his loss of face in the wake of the results of the local government elections. But at least President Cyril Ramaphosa has something in common with the virus: they are both opportunistic. 

On top of this, the cabinet decreed on Thursday 25 November that Zimbabwe exemption permits will not be extended beyond 31 December this year, although a grace period of one year will allow such permit holders to “apply for other permits appropriate to their particular status or situation”. Nice touch. And completely impractical for the hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans and other foreign Africans, both documented and otherwise, who have been living for up to a decade in South Africa.

Where is our compassion, our caring for our fellow Africans? How is this not, to rephrase the 19th century German political philosopher Carl von Clausewitz, apartheid by other means? Xenophobia is still very much alive in the South African psyche. If one considers how African frontline countries, including Zimbabwe, assisted the ANC government in its war of attrition against the apartheid state over many decades, one can only marvel at the blatant Afrophobia condoned by our leaders.

Afrophobia is certainly the defining feature of this strain of xenophobia as a social virus found in South Africa. In a recent paper prepared with a colleague for a special journal edition on xenophobia, we argue that the form of xenophobia prevalent in South Africa is not generalised, because it does not appear in the form of a classic fear of “strangers or foreigners”. The latter is allegedly to be found in closed, foreign-influence-averse countries.

In South Africa, rightfully known as Azania, or the post-colony of slaves, xenophobia is particularly directed against foreign nationals of colour, notably Africans from countries outside South Africa, as well as Indians from south Asia (Pakistan, Bangladesh and India) and the Chinese. For all the hype about South Africa being a nonracial society, racism is still very much part and parcel of our national psyche. More disturbingly, perhaps, the endurance of Afrophobia has shown that far from racism being exiled, we have internalised our own perception of African inferiority.

How else could one explain this particular version or manifestation of xenophobia — namely Afrophobia?

My central question is: How is this form of hate crime so elegantly and so easily overlooked as a crime against humanity? The implicit governmental collusion with Afrophobia is nothing if not a crime by the state, in this case the South African government, even if only by omission. 

Stanley Cohen, who is an authority on crimes perpetrated by the state, contends that crimes “carried out by the powerful are not only not punished, but are not called ‘crime’.” The perpetuation of hate speech by the South African state — namely Afrophobia — is a case in point. Cohen, who attended the University of the Witwatersrand, was a virulent anti-apartheid activist in South Africa before he went on to become professor of sociology at the London School of Economics.

Why were Mashaba and other opportunists of his ilk allowed to run on an election “flatform” propagating xenophobia and, more to the point, why was this issue so popular among voters during the recent local government elections? How was this hate crime overlooked during the hype of the election drama?

Radical US criminologists Julia and Herman Schwendinger suggested the following so-called humanistic definition of criminology as an alternative to the pointless “science of causes” narrative embedded in the stultifying and administrative mainstream criminology in an effort to include the violation of fundamental human rights as crimes: “If the terms imperialism, racism, sexism and poverty are abbreviated signs for theories of social relationships or social systems which cause the systematic abrogation of basic rights, then imperialism, racism, sexism, and poverty can be called crimes according to the logic of our argument.”

To the Schwendingers’ humanistic definition of crime, we would be prudent to add hate crimes such as xenophobia. We know and understand that showman politicians can use Afrophobia skilfully and shamelessly, not only to advance their own agendas, but also to deny feasible and sustainable solutions to real problems.

Systemic service-delivery failures, high unemployment (especially among the youth) and the inability or unwillingness of our government to contain our rising levels of crime, are all issues placed very irresponsibly at the door of the “foreign national problem”. More enduring solutions to these socioeconomic problems are, of course, available. These include dismantling the system of cadre employment and addressing inequality in a credible manner.

These proposed solutions might need a lot of tweaking and a multidisciplinary approach, but the point is that African foreign nationals should not be blamed for problems largely of our own making. In addition, migrants often bring rare skills and different, valuable thinking to their host country. An outsider perspective is often what is needed to appreciate a problem’s true parameters.

What is the link then between South Africa’s Omicron Covid-19 variant and our disgraceful and inexcusable treatment of foreign nationals of colour? Health Minister Joe Phaahla is on record as saying that South Africa did the correct and responsible thing in disclosing the discovery of the new variant to the world. 

This led to a Pariah status for this country as many countries around the globe closed their borders to flights to and from Mzansi. It is beyond argument that business in South Africa is desperate for foreign currency (notably a struggling and almost depleted hospitality industry), particularly in light of the impotent way in which the pandemic has been managed by people in government with their own agendas.

Disgraced former health minister Zweli Mkhize and the conflicted Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma (with her alleged links to illegal tobacco barons Adriano Mazotti and Edward Zuma) come to mind.

Scholars on stigma, notably Erwin Goffman in his very readable Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoilt Identity (1990), have pointed out that stigmatising the marginalised is driven by vested interests. I refer to both African foreign nationals suffering from xenophobic violence and South Africans facing economic doom from the closing of international borders to and from South Africa because of the Omicron variant.

As South Africans reflect on the damage inflicted on our already battered economy by the country being placed on the red travel list by many other countries, the justice of this development should not escape us when we bring violence to our neighbours from our northern borders. 

Both situations have been dealt with extremely poorly. But there is also poetic justice in our misfortune. Finally, the virus should not obscure our view of other equally dangerous and infectious viruses (opportunism and insidious state crimes being cases in point).