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Where the sins of the fathers are visited on the ‘foreigners’

Fears of a new wave of violence characterized by xenophobia has parts of South Africa on edge. As with many of the country’s problems, this one is not going to go away any time soon



In the opening pages of Patrick White’s magnificent novel The Vivisector, the child protagonist observes the chickens pecking at a pullet with a crook-neck; he asks his father why, and Pa replies, “Because they don’t like the look of it. Because it’s different”. Difference signals one out for persecution; all the easier if you are a minority.

The debate – which is mostly a creation of the government and the police – as to whether the recent violence in Soweto and elsewhere is xenophobic or just criminal, rather misses the point. The facts speak for themselves. Only foreign Africans or locals mistaken for being foreign Africans, and only foreign African-owned businesses have been targeted. Whether motivated by a hatred of immigrants or not, these criminal acts are aimed at foreign nationals.

Seeking out a scapegoat is a cowardly and dishonest way to view the world, but in the land of the precarious, with scarce resources, intense competition, and where many lack the agency to change their material conditions, the aggrieved form a mob and find a scapegoat to vent their anger upon. As the poet Cesar Vallejo put it, the anger of the poor has one oil against two vinegars. And so inevitably the poor eat each other.

The real culprits behind the misery on the ground in the townships of South Africa are either elusive – the long shadows of apartheid and the current economic system, or they are far out of reach – the fortressed white monopoly capitalists, the black elite crony capitalists who do nothing for their workers, the corrupt, incompetent politicians who wreck service delivery, the tenderpreneurs who rob the poor. One must add that fraudulently elected dictator in Zimbabwe, whose country’s economy has been decimated on his watch and has led emigration on a Biblical scale.


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Targeting immigrants is a post-apartheid reinvention of similar divisions and dynamics in our past, such as existed between squatters, township and hostel dwellers, between fresh rural migrants and those who already held temporary permits or who had made it onto a housing list, between coloured, Indian and black African, between shack lords and rival landlords.

In May 1986, the community of old Crossroads, an icon of resistance to apartheid supported and touted by such organisations as the Black Sash, went on a murderous rampage against the surrounding squatter communities, methodically killing, burning and displacing over 70 000 people in a matter of weeks.

In 2008, Cape Town’s townships were once again ablaze, but this time the targets were African immigrants. The shameful omissions and political intriguing between the DA-held City and the ANC-controlled province, left thousands of foreign nationals taking refuge in camps, halls and churches as violence swept the country and more than 60 immigrants were murdered.

Although far from unique, violence distinguished by its xenophobic character is particularly disturbing in South Africa, given our battle to overcome the ethnic divisions of apartheid and the great debt we owe the continent for its support for our liberation. Then there is the irony of how the very ranks of our government are full of people once exiled. And how many black South Africans participating in the violence were themselves under apartheid labelled ‘illegals’ and have first-hand experience of dehumanising bureaucracy and arbitrary deportation? Seeing naked, skinhead-style racism uncannily re-enacted by black South Africans in xenophobic lynch mobs is therefore doubly sickening.


Looters make off with goods from a store in Soweto, South Africa, Thursday, Jan 22, 2015. Photo: Associated Press

In 1986, there were third forces at work – the security police with the ‘witdoeke’; today there are opportunistic politicians and businessmen who ratchet up anti-foreigner rhetoric and mobilise the community. There are farmers and employers who use ruthlessly exploitative wages and conditions to play off foreigners (without social grants and desperate for work) against locals (often less qualified thanks to South Africa’s mismanaged education system). There are the police who apply the laws of the country unevenly, often extortionately, sometimes spearheading the persecution themselves, or they simply turn a blind eye to the wholesale looting of shops and leave the victims unprotected. The Department of Home Affairs is as corrupt as ever and has gone out of its way to put the immigration problems as far from sight as possible, cutting down on the number of refugee centres and removing them from the public eye.

Media houses reporting on crime won’t describe a suspect as black or white, but will often mention if they are from another African country, reinforcing stereotypes. Finally, there are the community members, for whom if the lower prices enjoyed at an unregulated spaza shop weren’t low enough, looting is even better.

Immigrants tend to live and operate businesses in neglected peripheral environments, places with poor policing, active vigilantism, bad services, and deeply frustrated communities. Foreigners don’t vote, and politicians aren’t going to stick their necks out to help them; they prefer to be seen being “tough” on the “alien” element.

In addition to the criminal component, the isolationism of apartheid and its colonialism of a special type has fostered a racist and xenophobic mentality in many South Africans. Not looking at people as individuals, but as groups different to them and potentially hostile is deeply socialised. Generalising from the particular to form racist views is common; one Somalian fires a gun, suddenly all Somalians are guilty. Listen to talk radio and the comments made by some black South Africans about African immigrants, and it sounds little different from the kind of racist things whites would say about black South Africans during apartheid, as if across our borders lie the old Bantustans to which ‘illegals’ should be expelled.

South African police walk away from the scene of a looting in progress in White City,  Soweto. Photo: Alon Skuy/The TImes

South African police walk away from the scene of a looting in progress in White City, Soweto. Photo: Alon Skuy/The TImes

The sudden influx of strangers after 1994 unsettled many neighbourhoods, and the rapid influx of foreigners, partly thanks to Zimbabwe’s implosion, magnified that disruption in the 2000s.

The violence against immigrants actually never stops, and has been going on for 20 years; killing foreign nationals for sport on weekends in Johannesburg started in the mid-1990s already. News is only made when the violence breaches a certain scale or the volatility of the situation threatens the establishment.

There was an outpouring of enormous compassion in 2008 from wealthy suburbanites for the plight of foreign nationals. Umbrage was taken in certain local quarters, as there seemed to be far less empathy on display when black South Africans were flooded out of their homes in the Cape’s winter storms or burned out by shack fires. The reason was obvious, for paranoid whites were thinking, once the mob has emptied the Somalian and Pakistani shops, killed the Mozambican and Zimbabwean traders, driven off the Congolese and Nigerian parking attendants, and redistributed their goods and belongings, to which minority will the mob turn for the next meal?

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela visits the mother of Simphiwe Mahori who was shot dead by a Somali shopowner while allegedly attempting to rob the shop. His killing is believed to have ignited the recent looting. Photo: eNCA / Dianne Hawker

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela visits the mother of Simphiwe Mahori who was shot dead by a Somali shopowner while allegedly attempting to rob the shop. His killing is believed to have ignited the recent looting. Photo: eNCA / Dianne Hawker

Johannesburg is built on impermanence, on immigrants and migrants. Some have just arrived much later; very few families can trace their presence back a 100 years. And there have been communities, such as Khutsong on the West Rand and other places with strong civil society movements (and an absence of venal mainstream politicians), which have protected the foreign nationals living among them.

There are dozens of strategies and responses that could be deployed to ameliorate the situation, to learn how to draw the line between self-preservation and empathy, to define community in a way that embraces everyone. But where is the heart and where is the political will?

When Socrates was asked where he came from, he didn’t reply Athens, but instead, he said, “the world”. He was saying, we are all human – or to use Plutarch’s word ‘cosmians’. South Africans might get there one day, but first government has to set an example and stop pretending that the violence isn’t xenophobic.