Janice Winter
Janice Winter

Do we really believe in diversity?

I’m not so sure we do.

As South Africans we’re great at asserting our unity as “a people”, by quoting Tutu, Mandela and even Mbeki (though not Zuma — not yet, anyway) about rainbows or renaissances, and we’re especially good at performing our proudly South African brand of “unity through diversity” — just look at how us whiteys got into the whole vuvuzela and soccer (or football, for the foreigners) thing. But if we dig beneath the feel-good factor, or question the content of our politically correct credentials, the truth is that we’re not great at the ubuntu we claim to author.

I realise that this sounds both offensive and inflammatory. But before you shout me down and accuse me of being an Afropessimistic bored blogger or a Zille agent with post-Fifa depressive disorder, give me a chance to expound my assertion — after all, we don’t mind diverse views, remember?

While we pride ourselves on being a miracle nation, a rainbow people, unified through our difference, I can’t help wondering whether we’re united, rather, through the spectacle of diversity, or even by our (unspoken) fear of it.

An instinctive rebuttal would no doubt be our genuinely inspiring solidarity across all manner of colour and class divides during last month’s Fifa World Cup. And not only nationally; Tutu made the circle even bigger by welcoming the entire world to participate in our unity: “Africa is the cradle of humanity so we welcome you all, every single one of you. We are all Africans.”

And welcome the world we did, with the ironic exception of Africans. Our unity with others from our continent has proved largely skin-deep, limited to the layers of face-painted flags supporting Bafana Bafana, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Nigeria and Algeria (in descending order of preference). Concurrent with this powerful spectacle of African solidarity, our country was fiercely threatening within local communities nationals from the very countries we were so fiercely supporting on the field.

Journalists who dared raise concern about the “rumours” of xenophobic threats during the World Cup were condemned as being desperate for a sensationalist story in the absence of any World Cup crisis. In a blog for the Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader, Siyabonga Ntshingila exemplified this trend:

“So with the football party going swimmingly, the rand and the JSE holding up well amid turbulent global trading conditions, wage negotiation season being generally less disruptive than in prior years, Julius behaving and no presidential offspring coming forth into the world, and of course the Treasury’s coffers, someone needed a story. Maybe for circulation purposes, maybe for political reasons. Or both. Who knows?”

Seriously, Siyabonga? While there are all too many examples of poor journalism around, the profession is far from the opportunistic, unscrupulous and corrupt trade described above. Journalism is, as scholar Jay Rosen describes, “democracy’s cultivator, as well as its chronicler … a willing sponsor of public talk, an invitation to participate, a convenor of civic activity, a guide to problem solving, a constructive art for a strengthened democracy”. While it often falls short of its mandate, the noble aims of journalism should not be underestimated, not least so that it can be held accountable by these standards.

There is more to our nation that the hosting of a football tournament and issues of immense consequence cannot be ignored simply for the convenience or comfort of a singular positive national narrative keeping spirits high. Though the World Cup deserved the celebration with which it was received, allowing it to overshadow (or using it as an excuse to overlook) concerns fundamental to our Constitution would undermine both the benefits of the World Cup and, far more fundamentally, the integrity of our democracy.

Interestingly, the author introduces himself as follows: “Siyabonga Ntshingila is a walking example of how not to go through life productively.” I won’t challenge him on this assertion. On the content of his blog, however, I certainly shall.

To me, his is the irresponsible “journalism”. In a country which just two years ago experienced two weeks of xenophobic violence that saw 62 African nationals killed, more than 100 000 people displaced, millions of rands of property damaged or stolen, calls made for a state of emergency and military troops deployed in city spaces for the first time since the end of apartheid, to refrain from reporting renewed threats would be of serious consequence for public-interest journalism and democratic engagement.

Yet still, Siyabonga deemed the media coverage little more than hysterical sensationalising for the sake of circulation figures — which, if his assertions were backed up by anything other than his own assumptions, would indeed warrant action from the Ombudsman:

“Of course, none of this nascent hysteria has been backed up by anything other than talk based on reports based on talk based on, well … you get the point. A smattering of foreigners on the move? Must be trouble brewing then, call in the army. It’s a national crisis. Or not.”

Well, Siyabonga, it appears that — despite Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s initial anger at “unbalanced media reports which still instil fear about possible attacks” — he took you literally, and called in the army to Kya Sands on Wednesday. Why? Well, 16 people were attacked and their properties looted in xenophobic attacks.

Siyabonga’s assertion that “there is no evidence that there is a looming threat of massive nationwide violence against foreigners” was supported by President Zuma’s statement that though there had been rumours of planned new xenophobic violence, he was not certain there had been actual threats and that people “should not have fears”. More curious was Mthethwa’s explanation that an investigation found that those leaving were foreign migrant workers returning home. These statements miss several fundamental facts:

1) Most importantly, that there has been sustained evidence of a credible threat by individuals within local communities. Even out-of-touch white middle-class me knows a young couple who, having been beaten in the 2008 violence and being forced to flee briefly back to a highly volatile post-election Zimbabwe, again fled their Western Cape informal settlement, this time with their newborn baby, in the midst of the World Cup celebrations in response to sustained intimidation. Even if there was little evidence that this would develop beyond idle threats, would you take a chance if you had their circumstances; their scars?

2) Respected civil-society groups and church organisations have long-since warned of continued animosity towards and intimidation of foreign nations, including robust field research from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) Forced Migration Studies Programme, which found that “since the 2008 attacks, almost every month there has been at least one attack on groups of foreign nationals”. The South African Human Rights Commission, in fact, submitted a document to government in March 2009 outlining both underlying causes of the 2008 violence and recommendations to ensure that there is no recurrence, but this has still not been debated in Parliament. Similar experiences can be recounted by, among others, the Coalition Against Xenophobia, Zimbabwe Exiles Forum, Passop, the Social Justice Coalition and Sawima.

3) The threat does not need to be one of “massive nationwide violence” for it to warrant attention — 16 victims of violence are far too many and this figure is citing incidents in Kya Sands alone, not considering Mamelodi, Diepsloot, Khayalitsha, Gugulethu, Nyanga, Atteridgeville, Chatsworth, KwaNdengezi, Dassenhoek and other sites of recent intimidation.

The government has outlined its understanding of the causes of unrest, which it sees as a mix of opportunistic crime, youthful rebelliousness and foreign nationals evading taxes. Their “proactive” response to the renewed threats of violence includes a plan to “review and derive lessons from the May/June 2008 incidents”. It confounds me that such a review has not yet been conducted.

Particularly considering that several in-depth studies have been published looking into the causes and consequences of the 2008 violence. For example, the Forced Migration Studies Programme at Wits found that, “while opportunistic looting accompanied the violence, this was neither the primary motivation nor the source of popular legitimacy for those who initiated violence”. Gabriel Shumba of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum affirms this view:

“Xenophobia is defined as targeted hatred or fear of individuals by virtue of the fact that they are foreigners. There has been looting of shops, but only those shops owned by specific groups, while shops owned by locals have been left largely unharmed. A South African was attacked and his response was to show documentation proving his local identity, but his attackers continued arguing that the document was fraudulently obtained. Does this not underscore national identity as the motive? It is disingenuous of the South African government to pretend that these are not xenophobic attacks, because they are blinding themselves to the root cause of these atrocities. And it you’re refusing to acknowledge the root cause, how do you find a prescription?”

We instinctively ascribe xenophobic sentiment to the desperate competition for basic resources by poor communities in South Africa, who are faced with increasing numbers of foreign nationals entering their communities and competing for housing, employment and other basic services. However, the Forced Migration Studies Programme research found that the sites in which the 2008 violence occurred were not the communities with the highest percentage of residents in absolute poverty, levels of unemployment, percentage of youth, percentage of people with low education and percentage of foreign residents. Communities did have high levels of economic deprivation, male residents, informal housing and language diversity. Their findings suggest key triggers of violence against immigrants included “competition for formal and informal local leadership positions and competition for business opportunities … in locations where formal local governance structures are weak or considered illegitimate by the local population”.

Shumba concurs with this view:

“Some local authorities and councillors have been implicated in inciting these attacks. In the end, there has been no meaningful action by the relevant parties to discipline these individuals, who are inaccurately ascribing the government’s lack of service delivery to the prominence of foreigners in these localities. We are asking the South African government to acknowledge that this is a real phenomenon and to raise awareness about the push factors that force people to seek asylum in this country. Asylum seekers are often in South Africa not out of choice, but because of a crisis of governance in their home countries. It is incumbent on the government to conscientise communities that South Africa’s freedom is in large part due to the hospitality of countries like Zimbabwe during apartheid.”

Though the staggering levels of inequality in South Africa and basic service delivery failure in many disadvantaged communities is clearly the cause of widespread and legitimate frustration and anger among many South African citizens, it is not a given that such anger should find expression in violence against extremely indigent foreign nationals and asylum seekers. We should be interrogating the failure of legitimate and more effective avenues for expressing discontent, including access to government.

Further, there is a need to contextualise the current animosity towards immigrants within broader issues of nation building, South African identity politics, urban development and social exclusion. We can build a common sense of South African identity without feeling defensive or fear that these efforts are threatened by the diversity of foreign nationals. The extremely difficult task of building a nation — a people — from a deeply divided society is a fragile task, but does not necessitate a defensive exclusivity at the expense of a more open, inclusive and democratic identity.

Our ubuntu must surely be about more than vuvzelas or the short-term optimism offered by the collective singing, dancing and feeling of national solidarity at a football (or rugby in 1995) event. Ubuntu is not an emotion or a mood. Rather, it implies the difficult and often inconvenient decision to welcome, include and assist others, at times at our own expense, when faced with the option of not having to.

Let’s remain proudly (South) African. Ubuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.