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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.


  • Kagure Mugo is the co-founder and full-time curator of HOLAAfrica! She is a part-time pseudo-academic and part-time wine-bar philosopher. A nomad (who has been everywhere and belongs nowhere) with a firm belief that no-one will love Africa till she loves herself.


  1. Jon Low Jon Low 3 February 2015

    It’s not what these people SAY that is the problem. It’s what they THINK. And because, in their naivete and simplicity, they honestly and openly say exactly what they think, the rest of the world knows exactly what appalling thoughts underpin their actions (or, rather, inactions).

  2. Nonjongo Nonjongo 3 February 2015

    I think Minister Lindiwe Sisulu is being exceptionally wise to be truthful about the context, which has nothing to do with what she thinks, but rather is a reality. In fact, it is statements like “There is no xenophobia in South Africa.” , “African foreign nationals are accepted with the same graciousness by all South Africans as white and/or western foreign nationals”, “Apartheid beneficiaries show a willingness to correct the atrocities visited on victims of apartheid and do not fuel xenophobia by many of their practices and utterances”, would be a great deal more worrisome and unwise. Let me hasten to add that the belief that foreign nationals are more industrious and malleable than Indigenous First Nations in South Africa would be a moot point if the same people already enjoy the aspirations of the imperatives of transformation.

  3. Bokwe Mafuna Bokwe Mafuna 3 February 2015

    What a situation. What utterances. Trade secrets. What leadership.

  4. Gary Bing Gary Bing 3 February 2015

    The argument about secrets by government is a red herring for their total neglect of their duty to maintain law and order and to vigorously bring to book the thugs.

  5. TATA TATA 5 February 2015

    The trade secrets of foreigners is: work long hours from 06 AM to 10 PM sleep in shop and be willing to help communities at any point in time including selling on credit and not living on credit , that is their trade secret nothing else!

  6. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 5 February 2015

    There is an American comedian who quipped that : if someone who can’t speak the language and has no contacts, can take your job, you have to wonder just how unemployable you really are.

    It is ironic that the same woman who was part of the foreign affairs department, which made it possible for so many to come here, is now attempting to pretend she is against it.

    People from other countries are willing to work longer and harder for less. That is the sad truth. They have so little that a quarter loaf is better than no loaf. Our political rhetoric has made a lot of our people believe that two loaves is still not better than none. I realise that is a disgraceful generalisation but, it certainly does seem that way at the moment.

    For the record, I do feel that we have FAR too many unskilled and semi-skilled foreign nationals in the country. With our unemployment and education system, it is foolish to have people coming in who are not needed. Charity begins at home because you cannot give from an empty cup. We should sort ourselves out first

  7. Jonas_Barbarossa Jonas_Barbarossa 8 February 2015

    One can not simply demand trade secrets.

  8. GoodWolf GoodWolf 8 February 2015

    Good article.

  9. gc gc 9 February 2015

    Might one or the other viewpoint hold sway?

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