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xenophobia victims are sacrifices of a larger injustice

April 5, 2019

South Africans suffer a misguided sense of exceptionalism that manifests as a widespread attitude that we are “better” than other Africans. One could argue that it was borne out of the dominant political position the country once had on the continent, a reality that is slowly slipping away. Even as the continent’s economic giant, times of prosperity rarely reach the poorest; while times of economic strife weigh on them the most. And it is during the latter times that xenophobia begins to strike. The past decade of xenophobic violence in South Africa speaks to the broader human anxiety around survival in a capitalist system, and how poor Black people will often take it out on each other. It is this powder keg, rustling up against the buffers of capitalism, that prevents the poor from taking their grievances out on those actually responsible.

Xenophobia has existed in South Africa since well before the country became a democracy in 1994; yet, surprisingly, its prevalence escalated after the win by a Black government. The fallen National Party corrupted the government, disenfranchised Black South Africans and enriched white people with land, opportunities and loans. The governments that followed started out as the antithesis to greedy minority rule, before descending into their own greedy class, served only a precious few at the top of the Black socio-political hierarchy. Here was a liberation movement turned government, filled with freedom fighters who sacrificed their families, educations and comrades to see freedom achieved. But now, they had the keys to the vault.

The re-intensification of xenophobic violence began in 2007-08, under the presidency of Thabo Mbeki — who initially called it “naked criminal activity” — becoming more prevalent and violent during the past decade. under the reign of Jacob Zuma. The former South African president’s tenure was defined by scandals, finding its tragic conclusion in the revelation that R1 trillion (just over $711 billion) was lost to the corruption orchestrated by all levels of the Zuma government. Billions of dollars that were supposed to be dedicated to public goods, service delivery and a laundry list of other civic requirements. It was State Capture, the manipulation of legislation and government funds to enrich private players, akin to that of Wall Street or the NRA in the U.S. government. The GOP screws over the poor in policy and the African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party, screws poor people over in failed execution caused by looting. In both contexts, the poor always suffer, and they take their frustrations out on those labeled as “other”, who are often poorer and more vulnerable. It is also worthy to mention that white foreign nationals have not been touched thus far, neither in the USA and in South Africa.

Undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are some of the most vulnerable groups on the planet. These are people fleeing war, violence and economic hardship — with no choice left but to flee. The rise in nationalism has made their existence that much harder, with richer elites using a shared national identity to scapegoat poverty-stricken fellow Africans searching for a better life. It is an oppressive structure that operates along class lines that often fall along racial lines as well. Black-on-Black violence is only ever given attention when it is time to vilify Black people, but the narrative that is always left out of that reality is that the police act as a buffer between the poor and the class of people responsible for the perpetuation of poverty. With that buffer in place, poor people run with the notion that their woes are caused by foreign nationals stealing jobs, taking up living spaces, or bringing AIDS into the country.

It seems those attitudes outweigh and conceal the legacy shared by Black South African anti-apartheid freedom fighters, and the African countries that aided their cause. Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania and other African countries gave our anti-apartheid liberation movements land, resources, training, and even access to social services according to an essay written on IOL by Shannon Ebrahim, Group Foreign Editor at Independent Media. Ebrahim also shared the story of acquaintance Edward Kanyemba, a Malawian who was a victim of a xenophobic attack in Diepsloot, a township (underdeveloped settlement) North of Johannesburg, South Africa. Kenyemba was stabbed in his spinal cord and arms times for being a foreigner after locals noticed that he spoke with a foreign accent. “It was a xenophobic attack clear and simple – his attackers were aware of his foreign accent when he asked them for directions,” Ebrahim wrote. “When they refused to provide the directions and he turned and walked away, they descended on him as he crossed the road – stabbing him four times in the base of his spine and three times in the upper arm.”

None of Kenyemba’s possessions were stolen and the attack took place near a police station, yet Kenyemba doesn’t remember there being any police around in the madness. After he was discharged from the hospital, he tried to report the incident at the nearest police station in Tembisa but was told that he needs to report at the police station near where the incident took place. This goes against police protocol as people are allowed to report a case anywhere and have that case transferred to the relevant station by the police themselves.  Kenyemba was eventually contacted by police on April 2nd but was told that they would call him back the next day for a statement. It has not been confirmed whether the call happened. The incompetence of the South Africa Police Service (SAPS) has evolved from open secret to outright reality lamented by all South Africans. Misogyny and xenophobic attitudes run rampant through police forces, leaving victims of these crimes in danger.

The SAPS does not have xenophobia as an officially classified crime according to a police spokesperson interviewed on Johannesburg radio station 702. SAPS Brigadier Mathapelo Peters told the radio host Karima Brown, “we do not have a category when we do our crime statistics that is called xenophobia. Crime is crime,” while talking about the stabbing in Diepsloot.  When asked why xenophobia is not categorized as a crime, Brigadier Peters shifted responsibility to politicians and a political process – a problematic assertion considering Peters also mentioned that “no-one, as far as I know, has been arrested for a crime called Xenophobia.” Without an official criminal categorization, xenophobia isn’t given the attention it is due, resulting in the investigative neglect of the cause.

The attitudes that perpetuate xenophobia aren’t merely found in the lower classes. The bigoted behavior that often precedes targeted violence is ubiquitous in South African culture, from top to bottom. It crops up in media and movies that perpetuate those attitudes. It’s the normalization of derogatory language and names for foreign nationals and even the constant testing poorer foreign nationals face from poor South Africans in the form of checking whether fellow Africans can speak South African languages. Politicians lament the violence but spew xenophobic attitudes themselves when making comments about “foreign drug dealers” bringing drugs into the country in a bid to curry favor with South Africans in the lead up to elections. Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini even said in a speech that foreign nationals were in South Africa to “steal jobs” in 2016. Regardless of the economic class, xenophobic attitudes persist across the board and that reality is often ignored by politicians who try to frame the violence as an isolated issue.

Politicians speaking to the cause of xenophobia would mean the government being accountable for its in the plight of its citizens. South Africa is a nanny state with a greedy and incompetent nanny, and although we will not absolve those who carry out the violence, we will remember that they are part of a forgotten generation who have not yet enjoyed the spoils of freedom outside of being able to vote for people who look like them. Who is going to tell these people that their lives are hard because their government pissed R1 trillion down the toilet, into the sewers of political corruption? Would they believe you when the ANC uses their liberation record to cover up any wrongdoing they partake in? “We liberated you, so look the other way.” That’s if poor South Africans are able to notice the corruption at all with the poor education they receive in order to be used as voting fodder.

The xenophobia playbook is not new and not specific to South Africa or even the United States. The ideology is a tool of deception used to shift public outrage towards those that can do the least to defend themselves. It is a vicious, vicious cycle that is a far more complex fix than anyone is willing to let on. What do we do in the meantime, for the sake of those who are targeted and killed? When will the constant shifting of blame finally land with the culprits with power?



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