Kagure Mugo
Kagure Mugo

Xenophobia: SA government’s careless utterances could cost lives

“Foreign business owners in SA’s townships cannot expect to coexist peacefully with local business owners unless they share trade secrets.”

These were the words of Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu when speaking about how government will tackle the looting and violence against foreign business owners. What this can be translated to is: “Give me your lunch money or I’ll hit you.”

Aside from sounding like a mafia-boss shakedown, this response is problematic for two reasons.

It amounts to state-sanctioning of violence against foreign nationals because they seem to have the “secret recipe to running a good hustle”. The idea is by hoarding it they bring whatever befalls them on themselves. An offshoot of this, “it is OK not to trust them”.

Secondly it creates the notion that the barrier to small business in the townships is guarded by foreign nationals and makes it their responsibility to help SA business owners.

Unfortunately Somali business owners are not the MBA lecturers of local entrepreneurs. They are simply people trying to make a living in a world that is often harsh and cruel. What we need is not business espionage but to figure out what it is about local business owners that hinders their progression.

Why is it that somebody who comes with little, just the clothes on his or her back, and yet still carves a way for themselves? Or even the less romanticised version, what is it about someone who comes to a country with every single qualification in the world and meets every single institutional barrier known to man but makes something of him or herself.

Why is it that locals, who face fewer barriers to entry, fail?

This is a pertinent question because being a foreign national in South Africa can be extremely precarious. With increasingly stringent immigration laws, in some cases you may not even be able to get a bank account let alone earn a livelihood as certain visas preclude you from having one, it can feel like manoeuvring with two cubes of cement on your feet.

The vague notion of having an “advantage” as someone from another (African) country is so farfetched it is right up there with idea that unicorns provided the hide for my pretty Masaai sandals.

Between the Herculean task of trying to get a visa or permit, not being able to speak the language (it’s a shot in the dark learning one of 11) and the institutionalised xenophobia (home affairs have to have signs up telling their staff not to be xenophobic) there are a great number of barriers.

In light of this, what many of South Africa’s beloved leaders often do not understand is that careless rhetoric spoken at government level emboldens or sows the seed for people’s reactions. Terms such as “trade secrets” set the scene for people in communities to re-cast foreign nationals as the villains in their lives rather than members of their community who could possibly add to the community.

The language that needs to be used should contain words such as “skills development” and “skills transfer”. These are notions that researchers in the parliamentary system have attempted to convey to the various committees numerous times and have been met with responses that would be more befitting of a booze-fuelled conversation than a bout of policy consideration.

Yes, the word “kwerekwere” was mumbled more than once.

The department of trade and industry and the department of small business development should do their job rather than dump the task on people who managed to figure it out. Furthermore, making it the fault of apartheid and “sneaky strangers” is a case of lackadaisical leadership.

If the priority of the government “is to the people of the country first and foremost” take some initiative and facilitate a skills transfer while also addressing other social issues.

Fuelling mistrust and violence through careless statements is not the way forward. To hear it coming from the leaders of a supposedly pan-African government is extremely worrying.

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