Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

SA government’s response to xenophobia a farce

By Prof Kopano Ratele

In the midst of the xenophobic violence that has erupted in South Africa, absurdity has once again begun to overrun the country. The images and reports in the media scenes have been horrific, reminding us of eight years ago when our society witnessed gruesome violence against foreigners. But the expressions of shame and regret are sounding preposterous.

Nonetheless the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, read out a statement condemning the shocking incidents of violence. Zuma also cancelled his trip to Indonesia so as to personally attend to matters at home. Government ministers were sent out to convince King Goodwill Zwelithini, seen as having incited the xenophobic violence that first erupted in KwaZulu-Natal, to apologise or retract his words.

In a country with a history of racism and sexism and other forms of othering that continue to affect daily interactions, thousands took to social and traditional media to express their shame and attempts to explain away the xenophobia of their fellow citizens.

Marches were organised in support for peace and foreigners.

Even though the country has some of the highest levels of violence in the global context, vows have been expressed to the effect that the country remains committed to stamping out all forms of intolerance. But it was the minister of international relations and cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who expressed on behalf of the government and the country “our heartfelt apologies and a deep sense of pain, shame, and regret” for what she said were unwarranted developments.

There does appear to be a real sense of outrage against the xenophobic violence, of course, indicative that there are different kinds of South Africans, and some believe in peace and good neighbourliness. Yet, although it might sound unfeeling at this point in time, I find the whole business not only utterly ridiculous, but distasteful for its unspoken messages about the value of especially poor black South Africans.

Thousands of foreign nationals have fled their homes to seek refuge in makeshift camps, such as this one in Germiston, amid the violence. (Fredrik Lerneryd, M&G)

Thousands of foreign nationals have fled their homes to seek refuge in makeshift camps, such as this one in Germiston, amid the violence. (Fredrik Lerneryd, M&G)

Let it be clear that the hatred and violence against foreigners is repugnant. The photograph on the front page of the Sunday Times newspaper of a Mozambican man being killed is sickening, but it is ultimately a reminder of the gratuitousness and everydayness of the violence in the country. Many young men are stabbed to death each day in this country.

The question that has troubled me then is precisely why the South African government is being regretful?

I do not think anybody from the government is going to try and explain the real motivation underlying the expression of shame and regret, simply because this would reveal the fact that Zuma and his ministers have no real sense of tragedy. We are being used as props in a farcical play by the African National Congress (ANC) government.

Here are three reasons why foreigners and South Africans should not trust a single word from Zuma and his government:

* First, I have never heard an apology for the fact that each year thousands of South Africans are killed and assaulted at the hands of other South Africans. Therefore, I suspect the apology is supposed to be for the fact that foreigners have been attacked, killed, and their shops looted. If the apology is indeed because the violence was against foreign nationals, the inference to be made is that the lives of poor black South Africans are worth less than the lives of foreign nationals, given that there has been no expression of apology, pain, shame or regret for them. The apology is thus a public-relations strategy, the main objective is to deal with the fallout regarding the image of the country.

* Second, I wish the apology was for the fact that the ANC government has accepted that living with violence affects our economic, social and psychological well-being. But it isn’t. If it was, the government would ask for help and put billions of rands towards preventing all forms of violence — not by employing more police but by taking advice from other societies and South African experts as to how to prevent violence. So the regret is obviously not for the fact that the government has failed to make South Africa a peaceful and safe society for all the people who live in it. The government will not share its sense of shame for its failure because that would mean it does not know what to do about the violence that permeates our society. Therefore if the government cannot achieve peace it clearly cannot be trusted when it claims it can prevent violence.

* Third, the expression of regret in fact goes against every report on the state of South Africa as far as violence, safety and peace is concerned. In 2013-2014 the country recorded more than 17 000 murders. This is a terrifying figure. Countries at war record far less killings and sexual violations. As such, any attempt to address the xenophobic violence we have witnessed must begin by understanding this form of violence as part of the larger violence that characterises South Africa. To pretend that we can be considered a peaceful country, save for the actions of a few xenophobes, is a lie.

So, dear government, if you wish to deal with xenophobic violence, face the fact that we are a violent society and deal with that.

Professor at Unisa, Kopano Ratele is a researcher at the Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit at the Medical Research Council and chair of Sonke Gender Justice. He writes in his personal capacity.

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  • Inequality and violent protests in South Africa
  • KwaZulu-Natal Lamb Curry
  • Where’s my invite?
  • The weakness of the ANC
    • Sipokazi Poswa-Lerotholi

      Its a case of; damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
      Imagine what would have been the reaction if, in the face of all this mayhem, South Africa had not uttered a single word to the representatives of the countries affected. Imagine if the government had met with the African diplomats and proffered no apology for the barbaric behaviour of its citizens against innocent foreigners.
      South Africa was duty bound to acknowledge that, in terms of the Constitution it has a duty to protect ALL persons within its borders, and would strive for the safety of all.
      If we are to rid this country of the scourge of xenophobia, then we should concentrate all our energies on ways of preventing it. Whilst the debate about the value of poor Black lives is an important one it should, I believe be reserved for another day.

    • Retha

      I am as appalled at our government’s lack of compassion for its own voters as you are, Professor, and I agree with your statements. I would just like to add that this government is also yet to acknowledge the genocide of whites in this country, leave alone do something about it. Quite simply: the ANC government officials, the president included, have no conscience in general and refuse to take responsibility for anything that is not working. They are only interested in getting the most out of each opportunity for themselves – and play the blame-game for the rest. Thank you for taking the time to write this article.

    • OpenDebate

      I agree, Sipokazi. But that is exactly the author’s sentiments too: he stated that the government had to condemn the acts, for the sake of foreign relations, rather than acknowledge that the crimes are actually act of an underlying violent nation. If the government truly cared about the violence in itself, they should have spoken out and ACTED much earlier – not only two weeks down the line AFTER the foreign national’s own countries have started making threats against our own people employed there. Our leaders are not doing what is needed to stop violence in this country – on the contrary. They are actively instigating it with hate speech and the like against certain groups. Hate perpetuate hate.

    • Trev Kitchen

      Why not both…?

    • Simon Nziramasanga

      Thousands of Africans die yearly in the Mediterranean, no one lift a finger. For the record I don’t condone xenophobia and as a foreigner it affects me one way or the other. What surprises me or rather shocks me is the fact that other African governments are not accepting culpability. Would we be having the kind of influx South Africa is having if all African countries focused on economic development . If the corrupt governments of Africa worked for the benefit of their citizens not themselves there would be no need for other Africans to burden South Africa. I know I am a Zimbabwean, a country whose economy has been dragged down by a dictator. Whilst Zimbabweans are suffering the cabinet there is almost 100% Us dollar millionaires:you will see the trend in all of Africa.Its time for the ANC to call a spade a spade rather than do that behind closed doors:it benefits no one

    • Jason

      I dont think that was the point of the writer. I see it as a question of why for the last 10 years while we already show stats of a very violent society with tens of thousands of deaths is nothing ever done about it but now when much fewer foreigners are killed does the government now make a stand against violence. It definately shows a government looking after their own hidden agendas.

    • Jean Bwasa

      We are all foreigners on this continent. Zulu people that are bantu originally came from Eastern Africa…Ndebele who are in Zimbabwe curently migrated from Kwazulu Natal…Shall we then ask everyone to return where he comes from…or live like birds who often do not collide in the sky…there is space for everyone on this global village to prosper and harvest…fruits. Just a thought

    • Rory Short

      I think the point here is that Xenophobic violence is just a particular expression of a much wider problem of violence in South African society. So if we really want to stem xenophobic violence we, and the government, have to tackle the wider violence problem. The government has shown no signs of doing this and that is what makes its statements of concern hollow and thus just window dressing for international PR purposes.

    • Rory Short

      Violence in society arises because there is something seriously awry in the society. Proper governments see one of their major roles as being to fix what is awry in society. Is the South African government a proper government? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

    • Biloko

      Simon Nziramasanga, you said that no-one lifts a finger to save the thousands of African who die every year in the Med. That is not true. Italy has boats that go out to seek the boats that carry the immigrants, in order to rescue them, and many countries have opened their doors to those who survived the terrible ordeal of crossing the sea in unseaworthy boats.

    • HughRobinson

      There is a difference in the show of regret than doing something about it. In 2008 the writing was on the wall government chose to ignore it. In fact tacitly supported attacks on any business even going as far as to accuse foreigners of not keeping their wealth in SA or creating jobs.

    • YajChetty

      Excellent article. Very true.We have not addressed the structural causes of violence resulting from economic exclusion and widening inequality, the material and psychological deprivation felt by the masses of poor people in this country.

    • Yusuf Ali

      The Western Cape as well as the entire country is experiencing very high crime rates as well as gangsterism and drug problems where up to 10 people are murdered every week in gang wars yet no army is sent in this shows the governments ineffective policing and the ANC owes us an apology to clear its record,the violence continues….

    • Heinrich

      He probably means no-one in Africa lifts a finger…

    • Paul Whelan

      All this is true and horrifying, but we must understand government will never take a stand against xenophobia among its own people because it would cost them votes. The only hope is that events will force government’s hand and make them address the problem through clear laws, firmly enforced:

    • Paul Whelan

      Agreed. What it boils down, Rory, is that government has to have the will and capacity to make rational laws and enforce them. It is true that SA is a lawless society in many ways. But all societies would be violent if there was no government. Government in SA has simply turned a blind eye to these things.

    • RSA.MommaCyndi

      Wonderful article!
      It is like the concern over domestic violence – fine for men to beat each other to a pulp but everyone is shocked when that excess violence spills over onto their wives and children. You have to condemn all or none.

      What bothered me the most is that our government caused this problem but now acts like they don’t know why it is happening. Everyone has known that this was coming. Maybe if our ‘intelligence’ was less concerned with political games, and more concerned with what is really happening, this could have been avoided.

      You can’t expect a smooth ride if the road is full of potholes – doesn’t matter what nationality you are.