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Xenophobic violence: SA government’s careless utterances can cost lives

South Africa’s Minister of Small Business Development recently made xenophobic comments, which prompted the DA to lodge a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). Here’s why the utterance is problematic, in light of the recent Soweto Attacks

“Foreign business owners in SA’s townships cannot expect to coexist peacefully with local business owners unless they share trade secrets,” said Lindiwe Zulu. These were the nonsensical words of the South African Minister of Small Business Development, while speaking on how the government will tackle the recent spate of looting and violence against foreign business owners. Aside from reminding one of a mafia boss shake down (“give me your lunch money or I will hit you in the face”), this response is problematic for two reasons.

Firstly, it amounts to state sanctioning of violence against foreign nationals because they seem to have the “secret recipe to running a good hustle”. And so by refusing to share their secrets they bring whatever violence befalls them upon themselves.

Secondly, Zulu implies that the barrier to small business ownership in the townships is guarded by “stingy” foreign nationals, making it their responsibility to make SA business owners better and not the locals themselves or even the government.

Unfortunately, Somali business owners are not MBA lecturers. They are simply people trying to make a way in a world that is often harsh and cruel. What needs to happen is not a form of business espionage, but to figure out what it is about local business owners that hinders their progression. Why is it that locals who face fewer barriers to entry into the market fail?

This should actually be a call to the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Small Business Development, to decipher why there is seemingly a knowledge gap and to figure out to plug it. Rather than dumping the task on people who managed to figure it out whilst sometimes fleeing dire situations.

There is no denying that being a foreign national in South Africa can be extremely precarious, even at the best of times, and with increasingly stringent immigration laws, in some cases you may not even be able to open a bank account, let alone earn a living. It can be like manoeuvring with two cubes of cement on your feet.

Never mind the Herculean task of trying to get a visa or permit and having to deal with institutionalised xenophobia (home affairs have to have signs up telling their staff not to be xenophobic), the vague notion of having an “advantage”, as Zulu suggests, is so farfetched it is right up there with idea that unicorns provided the hide for my pretty Masaai sandals.

In light of this, what many of South Africa’s government leaders do not understand is that careless rhetoric can either embolden or sow the seeds for societal discord. Terms such as “trade secrets” set the scene for people within communities to re-cast foreign nationals as Bond villains rather than members of their community who could possibly give advice or add to their livelihood.

The careless statements by Zulu demonstrate short sightedness on the part of the government as well as a good case of intellectual laziness. Clearly they have identified a source of skills production and blaming foreign nationals for violence against them, rather than using the situation to empower local people, shows a lack of focus and is evidence of lackadaisical leadership.

If the priority of the government is to the people of the country first and foremost, taking some initiative and facilitating a skills transfer needs to be done while simultaneously addressing other societal issues. Rather than simply spurring xenophobia on a public platform and passing the buck.

To say foreign nationals, many who have fled worn torn countries, have the secrets to success is reckless and incorrect. In many cases this ‘secret’ is the pure unadulterated need to survive after losing everything.

Just look at those who came back post 2008.

Those who set up businesses often provide goods and services to their communities which it would otherwise may not have been provided. Calling their presence “a courtesy” sends the message that this goodwill can be revoked if those around them feel that they are not paying back what they owe, which in this case would seem to be supposed ‘trade secrets’.

This mentality is the sort that xenophobic attacks are based on, to hear it coming from the higher echelons of power of a supposedly Pan-African government is extremely worrying. There is a means by which this could work out for everyone but fuelling mistrust and violence through careless statements is definitely not the way forward.

 

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