File picture: African News Agency (ANA)
File picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Xenophobia blame game inflicts great pain

By Opinion Time of article published Mar 20, 2021

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Desmond D’Sa

Born in Cato Manor during the apartheid era of 1956 and one of 13 children, my strict parents taught me and my siblings that we must know that we had neighbours, friends and family of all races who had lived together for many years. We grew up going to all cultural events and I grew up learning Zulu because I played with all the local children.

We were integrated and did not see race, creed or colour. The 1950 Group Areas Act began to be enforced, as the apartheid government decided we were different, classifying us by our different skin colour, hair, and language. The regime pushed us to live in townships with only other people who looked the same.

What many maintained ever since, long after the early-1960s evictions from Cato Manor and my family’s forced relocation to Wentworth, was a commitment to genuine non-racialism. We continue to strive for a non-racial, equal society that takes seriously not only ecological conservation but environmental justice.

Our member organisations challenge the local, provincial, national and global power structure, not only on the environment but on housing, crime, poverty and unemployment.

The formation of the Right2Know Durban chapter in 2009 was instrumental in deepening our commitments to a fair and just society based on open democracy, opposed to discrimination and state secrecy.

Now we look inward to one of the country’s most severe dilemmas: xenophobia. After 1994, we noticed that it had begun to emerge, especially against those immigrants who come from the continent of Africa, whose division by colonists in 1885 at a Berlin conference created irrational borders and tensions. Those who came to apartheid South Africa because their skin colour gave them privilege – from Europe, the USA, Canada and Australia – have not been affected, while those who subsequently arrived after 1994 from east Asian countries are less affected, although Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians have been targeted, especially if they are in the retail trade.

South Africans blamed the darker skinned immigrants for taking their jobs, housing, business opportunities and even womenfolk. They blame immigrants for the pressure on state services that are not adequately provided in the townships. They blame immigrants for drugs and crime.

We consider this blame game not only inaccurate – since crime statistics consistently prove immigrants are more law-abiding than citizens – but also self-defeating because it allows xenophobes to ignore the structural problems responsible for their misfortunes. We must also acknowledge that the recent attacks in central Durban were instigated by xenophobes claiming affiliation with the Umkhonto we Sizwe Veterans Association (MKMVA), whose members suffered at the hands of the apartheid government and had to flee South Africa to seek safety in Mozambique, Tanzania, Angola, Zimbabwe and other countries.

Many of our leaders who fled and were protected – such as Thabo Mbeki – rose high up in government institutions and became president of the country. Yet in 2007, when first told by the African Peer Review Mechanism delegation led by a former Nigerian president, Mbeki began the xenophobia-denialism that too many in MKMVA and the government still exhibit. Other leaders who should know better have called immigrant workers “lice” and economic parasites, and in 2015, once that rhetoric spread, it resulted in many of our brothers and sisters in Isipingo and central Durban losing their lives, being maimed or having their shops looted.

Still today, when these attacks occur in townships and inner-city areas where poor people live, too many politicians claim that it is not xenophobia but mere “criminality”. This denialism fools no one.

All tiers of South African society – including our own community organisations and the government – have failed over the past 27 years to address this crisis at its root. Politicians from nearly every party have been silent in regard to protecting all residents, whether citizens or immigrants.

Our political statements dating to the 1955 Freedom Charter proudly proclaim that South Africa belongs to all who live here. Yet attacks on the poor and working-class immigrants continue unabated. In contrast, poor migrant business people ask for basic police protection, or try to get from the government the necessary documents to trade in a peaceful environment, and they are ignored.

When will the government respect international and UN protocols that allow for migrant communities to be provided with documents and resources to ensure they are treated humanely, especially those refugees who have suffered unimaginable horrors in areas where we know there are South African foreign policy fingerprints on the oppressors’ iron fist? This is the “boomerang” effect that follows from our government’s and army’s “subimperialist” posture.

As a result, xenophobia must be declared a crime against humanity and banned. Those responsible must be held accountable. But we need to do more. The false boundaries created during colonial times by the likes of Cecil John Rhodes and those racists who attended the Berlin conference must fall. Migrant workers should be warmly welcomed.

Durban claims to be a caring city but enormous damage is done when innocent immigrant families are killed and harassed. This must never be allowed again, and the people responsible must be prosecuted. And on the side of civil society, it is overdue for us to build solidarity with and provide aid to the ongoing victims of xenophobia, as the faith community has begun to do in central Durban.

In this way we can build back better after the Covid-19 economic catastrophe: by rediscovering and nurturing our most basic instincts of ubuntu.

* D’Sa is an activist, environmentalist and winner of the coveted Goldman Environmental Prize in 2014.

** The view expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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