By Prof Kopano Ratele
In the midst of the xenophobic violence that has erupted in South Africa, absurdity has once again begun to overrun the country. The images and reports in the media scenes have been horrific, reminding us of eight years ago when our society witnessed gruesome violence against foreigners. But the expressions of shame and regret are sounding preposterous.
Nonetheless the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, read out a statement condemning the shocking incidents of violence. Zuma also cancelled his trip to Indonesia so as to personally attend to matters at home. Government ministers were sent out to convince King Goodwill Zwelithini, seen as having incited the xenophobic violence that first erupted in KwaZulu-Natal, to apologise or retract his words.
In a country with a history of racism and sexism and other forms of othering that continue to affect daily interactions, thousands took to social and traditional media to express their shame and attempts to explain away the xenophobia of their fellow citizens.
Marches were organised in support for peace and foreigners.
Even though the country has some of the highest levels of violence in the global context, vows have been expressed to the effect that the country remains committed to stamping out all forms of intolerance. But it was the minister of international relations and cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who expressed on behalf of the government and the country “our heartfelt apologies and a deep sense of pain, shame, and regret” for what she said were unwarranted developments.
There does appear to be a real sense of outrage against the xenophobic violence, of course, indicative that there are different kinds of South Africans, and some believe in peace and good neighbourliness. Yet, although it might sound unfeeling at this point in time, I find the whole business not only utterly ridiculous, but distasteful for its unspoken messages about the value of especially poor black South Africans.
Let it be clear that the hatred and violence against foreigners is repugnant. The photograph on the front page of the Sunday Times newspaper of a Mozambican man being killed is sickening, but it is ultimately a reminder of the gratuitousness and everydayness of the violence in the country. Many young men are stabbed to death each day in this country.
The question that has troubled me then is precisely why the South African government is being regretful?
I do not think anybody from the government is going to try and explain the real motivation underlying the expression of shame and regret, simply because this would reveal the fact that Zuma and his ministers have no real sense of tragedy. We are being used as props in a farcical play by the African National Congress (ANC) government.
Here are three reasons why foreigners and South Africans should not trust a single word from Zuma and his government:
* First, I have never heard an apology for the fact that each year thousands of South Africans are killed and assaulted at the hands of other South Africans. Therefore, I suspect the apology is supposed to be for the fact that foreigners have been attacked, killed, and their shops looted. If the apology is indeed because the violence was against foreign nationals, the inference to be made is that the lives of poor black South Africans are worth less than the lives of foreign nationals, given that there has been no expression of apology, pain, shame or regret for them. The apology is thus a public-relations strategy, the main objective is to deal with the fallout regarding the image of the country.
* Second, I wish the apology was for the fact that the ANC government has accepted that living with violence affects our economic, social and psychological well-being. But it isn’t. If it was, the government would ask for help and put billions of rands towards preventing all forms of violence — not by employing more police but by taking advice from other societies and South African experts as to how to prevent violence. So the regret is obviously not for the fact that the government has failed to make South Africa a peaceful and safe society for all the people who live in it. The government will not share its sense of shame for its failure because that would mean it does not know what to do about the violence that permeates our society. Therefore if the government cannot achieve peace it clearly cannot be trusted when it claims it can prevent violence.
* Third, the expression of regret in fact goes against every report on the state of South Africa as far as violence, safety and peace is concerned. In 2013-2014 the country recorded more than 17 000 murders. This is a terrifying figure. Countries at war record far less killings and sexual violations. As such, any attempt to address the xenophobic violence we have witnessed must begin by understanding this form of violence as part of the larger violence that characterises South Africa. To pretend that we can be considered a peaceful country, save for the actions of a few xenophobes, is a lie.
So, dear government, if you wish to deal with xenophobic violence, face the fact that we are a violent society and deal with that.
Professor at Unisa, Kopano Ratele is a researcher at the Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit at the Medical Research Council and chair of Sonke Gender Justice. He writes in his personal capacity.