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.


William Saunderson-Meyer

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....

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