With regard to the latest outbreak of xenophobic violence, I can do no better than quote Ranjeni Munusamy, who wrote (Daily Maverick, January 23): “Incidents of racism and xenophobia have again exposed South Africa as a superficial, ugly, violent nation that lacks respect for other human beings. From exclusive restaurants in Cape Town that discriminate against black people to the killing of foreign nationals and looting of their shops in Soweto, we are showing ourselves to be once again a nation filled with hate. The façade of a country that once represented the model of reconciliation is being gradually shattered. We are what we are: a nation in decline and at war with itself.”
This is clearly a time for serious soul searching. Scores of innocent people who came to this country in the hope of bettering their lot have been deprived of their hard-won livelihoods simply because they were born elsewhere. South Africans should be outraged and profoundly ashamed about this. However, if anything, the response from the street has been to somehow try to justify the attacks. Going by the comments on late night radio talk shows, engrained beliefs about foreigner establishments undercutting local businesses, being fronts for drug peddling, failing to pay taxes, not employing locally-born South Africans and the like continue to be widely held.
It has hardly helped that certain people in authority have sought to play down what has happened and tried to depict the looting as being simply criminally motivated. If that were the case, then all businesses, and not just those belonging to foreign nationals, would have been targeted. These were hate crimes, and issuing mendacious denials of the fact simply adds insult to injury.
The latest xenophobia outrages have come shortly in the wake of the Zelda le Grange Twitter controversy. Considerable fury was generated by Le Grange having tweeted — what exactly? Essentially, she was expressing resentment over comments that, in her view, suggested that government regarded whites as being unwelcome in South Africa. At worst, it could be seen as a “Vintage White Whine”, in which the writer read too much into what were a few isolated incidents and overreacted accordingly. Adjudging the tweets to be “racist”, however, was nonsense. Such thinking only creates the ridiculous situation where any complaint (justified or not) about discrimination against whites is automatically construed as being motivated by racism against blacks.
No-one was harmed by the tweets, nor, in reality, should they have resulted in much more than a little annoyance. Instead, there was an upsurge of countrywide outrage, culminating in Le Grange’s issuing a rather grovelling apology. By contrast, the kind of moral outrage that one would expect to be generated by mob violence against those of different nationalities has been distinctly lacking. Why the overreaction in one case and the under-reaction (even denialism) in the other?
The attacks raise other questions. Having failed to protect the victims from the depredations of the mob, are the police at least making a concerted effort to recover at least some of what was stolen from them? With regard to those who have been arrested, will they be charged both with having committed a hate crime and robbery, or simply with the latter (in which case, the singling out for looting the possessions of someone who is foreign born is apparently of no legal relevance?) Over the past week, what amounted to a pogrom was carried out against a defenceless minority in this country. Unless meaningful action is taken against the perpetrators with a view to preventing future such outrages, not only the rights of foreign migrants, but the very efficacy of our Constitution will be seriously undermined.
Image – Amin Abdirahman in his shop after it was looted on January 22, 2015 in Soweto. (Gallo)