We are steadfast, we South Africans. We’re not going to the dogs, we insist, even as the hounds of hell hump our legs and piss on our shoes.
We are not xenophobic, we aver. Such confidence, even as mobs snake through Johannesburg, brandishing knobkieries and pangas, baying: “Mugabe is dead, go back to Zimbabwe.”
As is increasingly our custom, the facts don’t matter. Nobody asks the 600 Nigerians flown home on Thursday why they are shunning our famed hospitality. Nobody asks the families of the 213 truckers killed in anti-foreign fire-bombings last year whether or not they think us xenophobic.
Xenophobic, the x-word, has joined the k-word as unutterable in a civilised society. In 2008, after more than 60 foreigners were killed, Thabo Mbeki persisted with the line that xenophobia couldn’t possibly exist here, since black South Africans had “a long history of co-existence with other Africans”.
Jacob Zuma was similarly hypocritical. In 2015, after violence claimed seven migrant lives, Zuma told AU leaders that the “actions of a few” did not justify the x-word slur. He cited as evidence that many had taken a public stand against attacks on foreigners, which “shattered the stereotype that South Africans are intolerant… against fellow Africans”.
Xenophobia denialism is also the prevalent tenor in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet, the argument being that since locals also suffer, it is mere criminality. By this definition, there is no need to decry femicide, corrective rape, or farm murders specifically. All are simply criminality.
The parliamentary justice and security cluster issued a statement “noting with concern” that incidents of common lawlessness have been “characterised as xenophobic attacks”. That’s wrong, “South Africa is not xenophobic,” the ministers assured us.
As part of attention-deflection from the x-word, some sought refuge in deep intellectual pondering. Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande blamed capitalism. International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor blamed apartheid.
Perhaps not noticing the blunt response from Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Rwanda, ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule went so far as to claim that African leaders concurred with the ANC’s view. “What I know, which is factual, is that our presidents, the presidents of Africa, are talking, and they have analysed this correctly. It is not acts of xenophobia, it’s acts of criminality,” said Magashule.
The previous week, Magashule’s response had been to express regret that it was being directed at “people who have the same skin colour as us”, rather than those “many others with a whitish colour” … (who) have never been attacked, because they are also so-called foreigners”. At least he is now getting “on message” with the official ANC line.
But Magashule, not the brightest button in the haberdashery store, unfortunately, then went and spoilt it all. He went on to commit an even more heinous act than using the x-word. He described some of the violence as “tribal battles”. Now, in the ANC lexicon, the t-word, tribal, is never acknowledged to be the cause of anything, implying as it would, ethnic cleavages within black SA society.
While Ace should expect a chiding from the ANC’s political commissars for that little slip, xenophobic and tribal denialism is prevalent among black nationalists. But it is simply inconceivable to admit publicly that there is, indeed, a deep-seated antipathy among many black South Africans to their black “brothers and sisters”, both here and abroad.
It’s puzzling that this should be so, since similar fissures exist everywhere. That they persist, for example, subterraneanly in Europe – despite
the lessons that should have been learned from centuries of harrowing conflict – is evidence that xenophobia, racism, tribalism, ethnic and religious conflicts are all part of a human propensity to scapegoat those who are identifiably different.
The only credible performance was from Cyril Ramaphosa. When eventually flushed from under the presidential bed last week to belatedly address the attacks on foreign-owned shops and the torching of foreign-owned trucks, CR at least dared to use the x-word. There was no justification, he said. “We are a country that is completely committed against xenophobia.”
Well, perhaps not completely. Not yet.
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