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Xenophobia – where are our leaders?

By Alameen Templeton

Right2Know outs Ramaphosa, Mashaba and Zwelethini as politicians who have openly fanned the hatred of immigrants that shames South Africa

President Cyril Ramaphosa and other leading politicians must shoulder responsibility for the ongoing surges in xenophobic violence that has seen shops looted, truck blazing and South Africa’s reputation in tatters.

Fingers have also been pointed at the police who critics say have largely adopted a bystander role as crudely armed mobs rampage through its most prominent cities with near-impunity.

Increasingly, voices are calling for perperators to be punished. As long as people believe they can target foreigners with impunity, the problem is not going to go away, they say.

In the last two weeks, mobs have burned and looted shops in Tshwane and Johannesburg while sporadic attacks against foreign truck drivers have occurred in many parts of the country, most recently on Monday night.

Speaking to Markaz Sahaba, Right2Know campaigner Dale McKinley said Tuesday the violence had exposed “a complete intelligence breakdown in South Africa”, with ordinary police officers unable to do much besides helping with the clean up in the wake of violence.

The organisation says leading politicians need to shoulder the blame for the rising threat of xenophobia in South Africa.

It outed Ramaphosa, Joburg Mayor Herman Mashaba and Zulu king Goodwill Zwelethini as primary miscreants.

McKinley said politicians had in the mid-Nineties already started blaming immigrants and refugees for rising crime in the country. This had created a false narrative in ordinary South Africans’ minds that foreigners were to blame for their problems.

Foreigners had been blamed for a host of socials ills confronting the country – depleted healthcare facilities, drug abuse, violent crime, and joblessness.

The police themselves had been repeatedly accused by immigrant organisations of targeting foreigners and refugees for easy bribes. Hawkers in Johannesburg complain the police use regular raids against pavement businesses as a cover for stealing their goods.

Right2Know acknowledges there are many sources of the violence “but it is also clear that statements of outrage and condemnation by state officials at all levels (Cabinet, Parliament, the Gauteng Province, SAPS and Metros) fuelled the actions of ordinary citizens who interpreted those statements to be licence to take the law into their own hands. 

“Senior political leaders find an easy target in the vulnerable Africans seeking to make a new home in South Africa. 

“Indeed, there is a dangerous emerging trend of xenophobic populism that leads to attacks on foreign nationals. In 2015, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini’s speech, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2019 election campaign pronouncements, the Minister of Health’s comments on the strain placed on health services by foreign migrants, and the xenophobic blaming for Johannesburg’s ill by Mayor Herman Mashaba have been followed by xenophobic attacks in different localities.

“In all these instances, even when not responding to a direct call, political populism is used as justification by instigators and perpetrators who would have been waiting for an opportunity to strike for their own reasons,” Right2Know says.

It described this weekend’s Jeppestown and Turffontein violence as a hate crime.

“These actions – which are criminal in nature – when combined with the targeting of the victims as belonging to a certain group, becomes a hate crime.

“Apartheid was the experience of being stateless and homeless within one’s home country. Today, we find South Africans showing the same hatred towards fellow Africans that we ourselves suffered not too long ago.

“As hosts of the World Conference Against Racism in 2001, we recognised xenophobia (and the local Afrophobia) as expressions of racism; in 2008 we experienced how the deep roots of internalised oppression enabled us to turn our own experience of racism and oppression into actions that discriminated against, targeted and in some cases killed other Africans living in South Africa. 

“It is an issue of national shame that xenophobic violence has become a regular and highly visible feature of South Africa’s political landscape. Outsiders have been regularly attacked, killed and their livelihoods destroyed since the dawn of democracy in 1994.”

Speaking to Markaz Sahaba, independent political analyst Ralph Mathekga said the national crisis had deep-rooted origins that could not be addressed by “the securitisation of xenophobia”.

Throwing police and soldiers at the problem would not solve matters, he said.

“Socio-economic problems cannot be solved by police and soldiers; they need socio-economic fixes and that you will find only in wider community fora, including religious and community leaders, business organisations and politicians, he said.

McKinley said research showed interventions to address xenophobia had failed “largely because of the state’s denialism”. Ramaphosa is on record as recently as two months ago denying there was any xenophobia in South Africa.

Right2Know says a combination of a lack of political will and impunity all encourage perpetrators to strike whenever it suits their interests.

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