THAT the growing upsurge of xenophobia across all communities and social classes in South Africa has finally erupted into savage and violent attacks on Africans from across our border should be of concern to everyone. This explosion of bigotry threatens to destroy much that is positive in our emerging democracy and undermine the limited gains made to date, especially by working people.
In the wake of this, it is absolutely essential that everyone concerned with the struggles for jobs, social progress and against poverty, puts the fight against xenophobia at the top of their agenda.
Just what is “xenophobia”? Essentially it describes any irrational and unfounded fear, distrust, or hatred of strangers, foreigners, or anything human that is perceived as foreign or different. It can take many forms, like national immigration laws that stigmatise foreigners by, for example, calling them “aliens”, and by subjecting them to degrading treatment.
It can be through the use of insulting, derogatory terms such as kwere kwere. It can mean restricting certain classes of people to inferior jobs and social status , their victimisation by police, or assault, rape, murder, “ethnic cleansing” and mass expulsion from countries.
The media may transmit xenophobic messages by persistently calling people from other countries “aliens” and prominently reporting incidents of crime involving foreigners. Some people may even compose songs offensive to foreigners.
Politicians from across the ideological spectrum, love to use “foreigners” as scapegoats for their inability to solve problems in their constituencies.
Then lies spread. Residents of poor communities are led to believe that unemployment, housing shortages, prostitution, crime and homelessness are problems caused by Africans from other countries. Some believe that because foreigners in these communities may have more money than local people, local women are more readily available to them. This is not only mischievously wrong, but also an insult to all women.
More alarmingly, there is misinformation about foreigners spreading diseases and raping women and children. Dangerous lies like these easily stir up anger and breed hatred.
The problems that most ordinary people in this country face are in truth rooted in years of apartheid capitalism which kept the majority in desperate poverty and denied us any democratic means to improve our plight.
The real level of unemployment is well over 35percent - this means that around eight million people are jobless.
Crime flourishes in situations of deprivation and social disintegration.
Foreigners are not to blame. Our problems have very little to do with immigration. What is the connection between the arrival of Zimbabwean and other refugees and the mass retrenchments imposed by employers at car plants, in the mines, the textile industry or at parastatals like Telkom or Eskom? Thousands of workers have been thrown into unemployment in recent years. Were their jobs taken by foreigners? Are car factories now filled with foreign workers? Is the textile industry in the Eastern Cape now staffed by foreigners?
On the contrary, workers from other parts of Africa are also victims of capitalism’s jobs bloodbath.
Who really is to blame? Many employers, reactionary politicians and racists find it easiest to blame poor people from other countries for job losses that occur every time the South African economy gets into trouble. But the real culprits are employers who have cut jobs and closed down entire industries because they are not making enough profit.
This is a resource-rich country. But an irrational economic system won’t put those resources to use unless it makes a profit for the privileged few. On the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, billions of rands change hands every day between speculators and financial institutions. But the resources to create the things we urgently need - hospitals, houses, schools and jobs - stand idle because speculators will not invest without the possibility of making a quick profit.
South Africa has no real shortage of land. Acres lie fallow, even as millions go to sleep on empty stomachs. We boast vast quantities of minerals and other natural wealth. There are millions of bricks, sheds full of timber and giant piles of cement stockpiled everywhere. Yet millions live in shacks or even on the streets.
Blaming poor people from other countries is a crude attempt to disguise the responsibility of the economic system for society’s problems.
Many South African trade union pioneers were migrant workers from across southern Africa. Workers from other African countries have for many years been part of the labour movement here. The South African economy, from agriculture to mining to all other sectors, was built by the combined labour of workers of all races - from inside South Africa and outside.
Yet immigration laws continue to make national and racial divisions official. They always contain rules relating to specific nationalities and races. They brand poor workers from other African countries as second-class citizens before they even set foot on South African soil. They encourage divisions in the workplace along racial, gender and communal lines. This makes it easier to keep wages down or just fire and deport workers who are no longer needed. The laws are a constant reminder that workers from other African countries have no rights here.
Immigration laws institutionalise racism and xenophobia. They divide and weaken our democratic organisations in their collective fight for a better society. Yet human rights are not just for South Africans, but for everyone . We diminish our own humanity if we do not insist on this fundamental demand.
Xenophobic attacks on immigrants also result from institutionalised prejudice prevalent in government bodies. According to reports compiled by non-governmental organisations, more than 45 000 foreigners who apply for refugee status each year are consistently denied basic human rights by government agencies because of ineptitude, mismanagement, corruption and indifference. The government’s lack of concern for their plight has led to them being excluded from access to housing, health care, education, banking services and jobs.
Officially sanctioned discrimination also makes refugees more susceptible to crime and abuse by South Africans.
Most refugees are not issued with the documentation that would give them access to all the services they need. Instead, they get a three-month temporary refugee visa. It often takes Home Affairs years to grant refugee status, and even longer to get an ID book, which allows access to basic services such as a bank account or the renting of accommodation. In addition to these delays, refugee centres are rife with corruption. Refugees are forced to visit the centres every three months to renew their temporary refugee visas, but Home Affairs workers often refuse to issue such visas unless bribed.
To be African and look foreign or speak with an accent is to be under suspicion. The police often show little sympathy to foreigners notifying them of xenophobic attacks. Many reports indicate that they are instead harassed and face demands to prove that they are legally in the country.
We, South Africans of all races, should be the last people in the world to be xenophobic.
We defeated the apartheid system thanks to solidarity action from all over the world, but especially from Africa. How can we now turn guns, knives and pangas on those fleeing oppression in their own countries?
All of us owe a debt of gratitude to other Africans. Oliver Tambo and hundreds of other Eastern Cape revolutionaries and freedom fighters were welcomed as exiles in many African countries during our long struggle for freedom . This province is a place where xenophobia must never be allowed to take hold.
All who live in this country must know that if people are made scapegoats for the problems afflicting us simply on the basis of their country of origin, we will be on a slippery slope towards regionalism, tribalism, new forms of racism and division. As it is, we are already fractured and not united along race, class and gender lines. Such divisions provide a poor foundation for enduring democracy, prosperity and peace. If current xenophobic tendencies are allowed to grow, they will simply compound our crises. Our collective efforts to construct a caring, humane society out of the rubble of our divided past will come to nothing.
We have no choice but to take a stand against xenophobia.
Azwell Banda, Russell Grinker and Siv Helen Hesjedal are development activists involved in the East London Anti-Xenophobia Collective. They write in their private capacities
l At 10am tomorrow, the province’s Anti-Xenophobia Collective will be hosting a public discussion at the University of Fort Hare’s ABC Hall, East London campus, on the road ahead. Everyone is invited.