Press "Enter" to skip to content

Moving SA beyond a state of denial

It’s simply the way that South Africa is governed. A state of denial followed by a state of chaos.

Then there is the slow dawn of reality, the gainsaying of responsibility and the search for scapegoats. Only when the cost of torpor becomes unsustainable come any attempts to address a problem until then steadfastly held not to exist.

That’s the debilitating cycle of African National Congress government. It’s a pattern endlessly replicated, whether in the collapse of Eskom, in the failure of basic education, or in spasmodic eruptions of xenophobic violence.

Former president Thabo Mbeki, it is worth recalling, famously denied that xenophobia even existed in South Africa. His doctrinaire straitjacket just could not handle the idea that black South Africans, overwhelmingly supporters of the ANC, had such an antipathy to foreigners that they went about maiming and killing migrants from the very African nations that had given the exiled ANC such generous succour during the apartheid years.

So, no matter how incendiary the words of King Goodwill Zwelithini — and incendiary, either deliberately or inadvertently, is what they were — blame accrues not only to the king. Zwelithini’s remarks might have sparked the most recent attacks, but the state of denial that allowed xenophobic anger to smoulder unattended for so long can be traced back to the Mbeki years.

Mbeki to this day cannot bring himself to utter the X word. The killings and chaos in 2000 and 2008 were about “criminal violence” he averred. This week the Thabo Mbeki Foundation issued a statement, in excess of 500 words, about “base misdeeds” against foreigners, without once using the word xenophobia.

One must sympathise with Mbeki’s dilemma. To admit to xenophobia on the part of black South Africans against blacks outside our borders is humiliating.

It undercuts the ideals of pan-Africanism to which every ANC politician pays lip service.

It undercuts the ANC view of itself as a non-racist organisation. For what, after all, is xenophobia but another word for racism — the elevation of one’s own ethnic and national identity above that of “others” who are instantly targetable by their visage, their speech, or their manners.

It forces the ANC to wrestle with policy inconsistencies that are at the heart of SA’s economic and xenophobic problem. Why is it so damnably difficult for small numbers of highly skilled foreigners to relocate to SA, while it is so absurdly easy for masses of low-skilled economic migrants to stream across the borders?

Research shows unequivocally that it takes enterprise to abandon the certainties of one’s home, however blighted it might be, to risk all in a foreign land. But the fact that immigrants are, in fact, nett creators of wealth and jobs is of little consequence to the xenophobic among us.

The grassroots reality is that a foreign medical doctor — be she Cuban on British — does not attract envy, resentment and anger. She is a threat to no one, since few hold the qualifications and skills that assure employment and material comfort.

To a township shack dweller, that’s not immediately apparent of a Somali shopkeeper. Factor in an uncomfortable truth alluded to by the Zulu king, that some criminal enterprises are visibly run by foreigners — Nigerian drug syndicates spring to mind — and one has both push and pull factors behind the many explanations for a xenophobic reaction.

President Jacob Zuma has announced a task team to counter what he, unlike Mbeki, is courageous enough to call by its name. Unfortunately, task teams, like our many commission of inquiry, often don’t signal a state of readiness to face a problem but rather are another attempt to deny what the problem is.

Let’s forget the rubbish from some about “third forces” and “criminal elements” as the primary culprits. Let’s forget about “media distortion” of King Zwelithini’s words being the cause — those in KwaZulu-Natal who went on the rampage shortly after he called for the exit of foreign “lice” were fluent in isiZulu and did not rely on inept translations into English, before grabbing their pangas and knobkerries

Most importantly, if we are to break the endless cycles of violence that gut our best efforts to build SA, we need to tackle a fundamental hypocrisy. It’s the state of mind of those who excoriate the king for his inappropriate language, while simultaneously cheering the likes of Julius Malema, when he wants to “kill the boer”.

If we ever hope to move from a state of chaos to a state of grace, we have to understand that tolerance, like freedom, is indivisible.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


  1. YajChetty YajChetty 25 April 2015

    Excellent article. One of the best I have read on the topic. Denialism and hypocrisy on many fronts is our own very worst enemy. You have summed up the state of the nation very well. Could equally apply to the state of the globe.

  2. Heinrich Heinrich 25 April 2015

    Whilst it does take enterprise to relocate to a foreign country, one should also bear in mind that the lure of lucrative and unpunished criminal activity like hijackings, burglaries, ATM bombings, cash-in-transit heists, farm murders, mall robberies, syndicate operations, drug smuggling, metal theft, counterfeit operations etc makes the decision to relocate a very easy one for the criminally minded “entrepreneur”.

    The above is especially true if local law enforcement institutions and even politicians are in cahoots with the foreign “entrepreneurs”.

    I personally believe that people are basically the same the world over.

    What we call “xenophobia” is just a symptom of a disease bred in the cesspool of Arrogance, Nepotism and Corruption, where incompetence, self importance, neglect, ego and greed are all part of a lethal bacterial cocktail.

  3. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 26 April 2015

    A very fine piece, I’d say in agreement that pretty well all the denial and chaos can be traced to the ANC’s practical monopoly of power and patronage. Imagine for a moment being in that position.

    Everything that goes ‘wrong’ – Aids, Eskom, xennophobia, education, health, foreign affairs – is potentially your fault alone and a threat to your position and privileges. The first reaction, therefore, is to deny the facts, as WSM says: denial is easy to organise and better, short term, than doing anything that might seriously upset some interest. Then, since denial means nothing is done to address or prepare for real problems, the next phase is the chaos WSM notes.

    In these conditions a halfway shrewd politician but disastrously narrow ideologue like Thabo Mbeki thrives. Since there is no significant political opposition to displace the ANC, manifest nonsense is accepted as truth; and what little opposition there is runs to extremes and produces the equally manifest nonsense of Mr Malema as an ‘alternative’.

    Events, which are all we have that is ‘undeniable’ in the end, could save SA in the longer term as a sensible ‘centre’ asserts itself. But it is a slow process and we must hope there is the time many say we do not have. On xenophobia I hope WSM will not mind me including a link to a piece along these lines:

  4. Pauline Hutchings Pauline Hutchings 26 April 2015

    This is, of course, the story of SA and Zim governance in a nutshell – but having been written by a ‘white’ will be open to the usual racially biased criticism. Dr Noah Manyika, a Zimbabwean I imagine, wrote a very similar piece recently – which surely should be read and taken to heart by people in governance. One can only hope.

  5. Abdul al Hazred Abdul al Hazred 26 April 2015

    South Africans don’t know where Africa is

  6. Alastair Grant Alastair Grant 26 April 2015

    Quality analysis, as always, WSM. However it doesn’t touch on the question of why we seem to be doomed to repeat this cycle of denial, awakening and the search for scapegoats? I believe the root cause is that the prevailing political culture in much of Africa revolves around loyalty to a party or group – even if you are unhappy with their management. So a majority of SA voters still support the ANC, even though they are not happy with the services they deliver.

    In the developed world, political loyalty is a rarity – people vote for delivery, so politicians are obliged to fulfil their promises if they want to keep their jobs. It wasn’t always so. The pre-industrial age in the northern hemisphere would be quite familiar, politically speaking, to most modern-day Africans. It may well be that economic development and political promiscuity are interdependent.

    But the point is this – if you are unwilling to express your dissatisfaction at the ballot box, you need to find some other way of doing it. Inevitably this involves scapegoats – whether they are people of a different race or tribe, employers or
    public service providers, or foreigners. Xenophobia, then, is simply an expression of political frustration – a metaphorical kicking of the cat.

    The sad part is that the only way out of this vicious cycle of frustration and violence is through education – universal, quality education which prepares people not only to earn a living but also to think for themselves. Unfortunately the last thing that our politicians want is an electorate that thinks for itself; they rely on blind loyalty to maintain their hold on power and wealth, just as the aristocrats and clergy of old did.

    I sense that we are in a race against time. There are signs that the political hegemony of the ANC is crumbling. Unfortunately many (most?) of the groupings hoping to take power away from the ANC are less interested in advancing the
    country than in getting a piece of the pie for themselves, before it’s all gone. And when it IS all gone, it will take generations to recover.

  7. Rory Short Rory Short 26 April 2015

    We have two intertwined problems. One is the inability of our leaders to come clean and admit that they have messed up be it on xenophobia or anything else for that matter and two is the inability of ANC supporters to disassociate the ANC from the current ANC leadership who are messing up and rendering the current ANC not worth voting for. What we actually need is a H[erstigte] ANC.

  8. Karl-Heinz Sittlinger Karl-Heinz Sittlinger 27 April 2015

    Had to be said. And it will sting the people that to this day insist racism only is a Caucasian trait.

  9. john madlener john madlener 27 April 2015

    Thank you for a good article as always!

  10. Charlotte Charlotte 28 April 2015

    Your description of ‘the debilitating cycle of ANC government’ is astute.
    Apparently everybody who is anybody has said “I say No to Xenophobia”.
    It is time that all South Africans now also say ‘No’ to a corrupt, immoral and incompetent government who have demonstrated that they are unable to control illegal immigration, crime, violent protests and lawlessness.
    You correctly say: ” …tolerance, like freedom, is indivisible”.
    So too is law & order, non-racism, integrity and knowledge with good governance.

Leave a Reply