Is it crime or xenophobia?
The recent outbreak of xenophobic attacks inflicts a serious dent on South Africa’s standing as a leading country on the continent.
This country will soon take up the chair of the AU, and would not relish lingering doubts about its credible relations with the people of Africa. South Africa has just assumed a seat in the UN Security Council, ostensibly as a representative of the people of Africa.
Whatever the explanation that seeks to account for and contextualise these acts of barbarism, they are abominable and recur with irritating frequency. Each time they flare up, they take us back to the sad path of self-hate and recrimination.
Under former president Thabo Mbeki, South Africa ushered in a new political, economic and philosophical relationship with the continent.
These were the years of euphoria and great expectation. High economic growth coupled with Mandela mania brought to our shores various migrants of all hues.
Some were legal, but the majority were illegal. Some were escaping tyrannical rule, whereas others were mostly seeking economic emancipation.
Faced with the influx of African migrants since 1994, the common man had to craft his/ her own response.
New high-voltage churches soon followed the shopkeeper, taking up and competing with local denominations. Soon most local shopkeepers were eclipsed and overrun.
The sheer numbers of these new arrivals became worrisome. It is argued that there could be around 6 million so-called illegal immigrants.
Against this backdrop you have the added endemic culture of rampant corruption at the borders that saw illegal migrants crossing through, even hardened criminals.
This fact was complicated by our immigration processing mechanisms that seemed to have been found wanting. When the floodgates opened, even the RDP houses were bought from the indigent beneficiaries, and from then there was no turning back.
The failure of local government to enforce their own regulations in relation to starting businesses saw the virtual takeover and daylight hijack of the local township economy by Pakistanis and Ethiopians.
The failure by the department of health to enforce compliance with health standards of goods sold in these shops saw many fake products making their way to the homes of the poorest of our people. Tax collection from these businesses does not exist, with most preferring cash transactions.
The domestic worker market has been virtually taken over by people from Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia. They are paid slightly less and are rumoured to be hard-working.
Most restaurants prefer Zimbabwean staff, given their culinary skills. The Basotho are also expert farm workers, while the Mozambican people possess physical and mechanical skills. Most Congolese work in various professions, with their lower-skilled workers guarding cars in most complexes.
Given the depravity faced by most African people on the continent, they have acquired an assortment of skills for self reliance. They are viewed as frugal and dedicated and work long hours because they have to repatriate most of their earnings back home to their families.
Most of these countries are to a large extent sustained by foreign remittances. So to them the idea of work means more than just a vocational obligation, but is an expression of their shouldered historic burdens and the hope they bring to their families and communities.
On average, the South African youth lacks the critical skills to work with his hands. As a result, competition for low-skilled jobs becomes inevitable. Youths’ obsession with degrees has left them unemployed, given the shrinking job market.
Competition for low-skilled jobs is an old phenomenon that even predates the discovery of mines at the end of the 18th century.
South Africans have coexisted with African migrants for a long time without any conflicts. What has changed now?
The recent attacks on about 300 Malawian citizens in Durban was as irrational as it was disgusting. What makes matters worse is the incorrect diagnosis of the heinous act as merely the agency of criminality.
It can’t be criminality when 300 Malawians are targeted for being Malawian and attacked. This is a targeted attack against a selected people who are deemed to be easy and vulnerable victims because they have no secure legal standing in this country.
This is pure and simple xenophobia, and not criminality. So, crime, methinks, is a convenient alibi that conceals Afrophobia.
Self-hate and self-denigration, which is the fundamental consequence of a colonised people, will be the hardest to defeat - even with a litany of progressive legislation.
It is time that we aim to decolonise the mind of the hitherto oppressed people to embrace a broader appreciation of their Africanness and a pan-African outlook.
The blood of our fellow African brothers and sisters will haunt us for many years.
*ka Plaatjie is a member of the ministerial International Relations Review Panel.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.