The intensity of the xenophobic attacks in Gauteng has taken the government, media, political analysts, and all the included in the new South Africa by surprise.
As pictures of bloodied men and women, burnt shacks and the atoms of destruction scattered on empty streets were first beamed into suburban living rooms I could just imagine the moral indignation in all those homes.
‘How could this happen here? Who is responsible? Surely it must criminal elements. And of course the underlying message - Not here in South Africa…Africa maybe with its Hutsi and Tus-whatever, in Kenya, or ‘mughabhe’s’ Zim….but not a stone’s throw away from paved Sandton! Whatever shall we say when we are next in London?’
The following morning on SAFM radio, which broadcasts in English and thus with a listenership that is all but the majority of the excluded, caller after caller poured scorn on the crowds in Alexandra with calls for the police to arrest these criminals and trouble-makers inciting our otherwise decent folks. It wasn’t left to the imagination that these uneducated marauding bands of criminals must be dealt with firmly.
I agreed with them.
Surely, it must be criminal elements, I concluded. It couldn’t possibly be ordinary South Africans whom I have grown to love and respect in all their imperfect diversity.
But as the days passed and the attacks on foreigners spread, my views changed. So did the thinking of the majority of callers on SAFM. Moral outrage turned to analysis of poverty and the frustrations of the poor. The killing, looting and raping continued nonetheless. By the end of the week, all that talk of poverty and marginalisation was still present, and moral outrage too, but strains of prejudice, and ‘these foreigners bring this and do that’ began to creep into the callers’ contributions. And then it finally dawned on me that this damnable disease, xenophobia, infected the middle classes too.
It got me thinking. Hatred and prejudice is one thing, but it is quite another thing to loot rape and kill because of it, triggered or otherwise. I know the first because as a Zimbabwean I have experienced it regularly myself. But the leap from xenophobia to the annihilation of the object is huge, or is it? Or rather, is it not an intimate affair? Does not one have live with them to know them? Then despise them; hate them enough to go to their homes, break down their doors, and rape the women. Does not one have to be close enough to stab, not once but a few times of course - just to make sure - then finally burn down their houses? That seems fairly close to me.
But I am beggaring the question and to answer I will start by being just as close to home as the attackers. So I will tell my story. I am Zimbabwean and my country has gone to the dogs, and even that description slanders dogs. It’s a country held captive by a gang of scoundrels flying high the flag of Pan-Africanism, nationalism, whilst its people go hungry. Our diet has always been of Chimurengas that never end. So we have subsisted on the glorious fight against ever diminishing ‘white farmers’, and a distant yet powerful Britain. Fear not we are told, our Moses, Mugabe, who will live forever shall lead us to our promised land. Meanwhile, those who disagree are labelled as traitors; beating and killing them is a patriotic duty. But they do not beat everyone who disagrees, the rest just suffer from hyperinflation, poverty etc.
The other alternative besides starvation left for some of us is the go south and work in the streets of eGoli selling cigarettes, mending shoes, or as gardeners, maids and busboys. It’s true, we are a strain on the resources, so are content to be at the periphery of South African economic activity. In fact, we are in the informal economy, doing those jobs that many South Africans would not do because they are ill paid and insecure. But why not go home and change your own country you ask? It’s a legitimate question and requires a short answer - we should. In fact, why should there be refugees at all in the world?
It would lazy to blame everything on the Zimbabwean crisis and end there. Xenophobia then? No! It’s too empty a term that says much and explains little. So the imperative is to follow and analyse the trajectory of thoughts that many pundits on TV and Talk radio have used to explain the pogroms.
The first rationale used to explain the xenophobic outburst was to be blame it all on criminal elements. It had to be criminals and marauding gang of natives roaming the streets and butchering anyone who looked ‘other’ African. Of course, the underlying message being that ‘ordinary’ South Africans, law-abiding citizens of the Rainbow nation could not possibly be involved. The reasons behind that train of thought was maybe shock, and shame (the sort that says ‘it can’t be happening here. What will the world say, that we are just another African country?). Clearly, South African society is violent and everyone agrees that crime is one the most important challenges aside from poverty facing this country. Furthermore, does it really need to be pointed out that killing of innocent civilians, raping and looting are criminal acts whether xenophobic or not. So that rationale says a lot, and again explains nothing.
The second rationale was rather interesting because it blamed the pogroms on some sinister ‘Third Force’. Many independent political analysts quickly dismissed it as some bogus conspiracy theories that government always uses when violent protest erupt in the townships. If one recalls recent history of post apartheid protests around service delivery in places like Bethlehem, Soweto and even Khutsong, government officials quickly dismissed justified protests as being instigated by a ‘Third Force’ (sometimes it was the Ultra Left). This force is a throwback to the early 90’s when rogue elements in the apartheid security apparatus trained, funded and armed various groups to kill ANC activists in the hope of destabilising the democratic transition. This rationale was given credence when hundreds of men welding guns, machetes were seen toyi-toying in the streets of Jo’burg on TV. It seemed as if history was repeating itself. The scenes were reminiscent of that time when IFP’s ‘Impis’ (alleged to have been in cohorts with this Third Force) would terrorise townships hunting down ANC activists. As far I am concerned, whether such a force has resurrected is beside the point. In fact, I will contend its not even necessary to prove its non-existence because if there was such a force it still needed fertile soil to germinate and spread its poisonous fruit.
The most popular rationale for the xenophobic outburst runs like this; the South African economic fundamentals are under strain. Inflation is on the increase; expected growth of 6% has never materialised and thus done little to solve joblessness and poverty. Neither can the economy provide decent housing and even when housed constant adequate basic services are only available for those who can afford it. For example, unemployment rates in townships are at least above 30% and much higher among youth. RDP houses built by government has done little in solving the housing crisis meaning that informal settlements will continue to be urban eyesores for many years to come. As a result, the rationale goes, the poor suffer the most from all these ills above, but are also given the added burden of competing with African immigrants for the little resources that are already available. This stokes anger and frustration.
This is correct in many ways. Was it not the suspicion that ‘foreigners’ were benefiting from government subsidised RDP houses in Alexandra that triggered the mayhem on the 8th of May? When attacks spread they graduated to targeting foreign informal traders in Gauteng, Durban, Cape Town and elsewhere. Fruit and vegetable stalls, Phone shops, spaza shops were looted and even pitiful small tent-like barber stalls in the Durban market area were targeted.
I can understand people attacking, and destroying the cause of ones poverty, and unemployment. It natural that one should resent the parasitic bodies within society that only sucks away wealth that should rightly belong to the body as a whole. In fact, is it not an injunction on the poor to rise up against the cause of inequality and misery? What struck me is that that rightful anger of the poor was directed to other poor people albeit of a different nationality.
Therefore, also reducing the recent ‘xenophobic’ attacks to the ‘economic’ is suspect. Economic reductionism cannot explain why the ‘people’ did not go a step further and attack small white and Indian traders too. Why did the black South African informal small traders not attack big supermarket chains that invade their communities undercutting prices thus diminishing their market share?
Clearly arguments that rely exclusively on the economic theses while illuminating are insufficient on their own. An observer looking in from outside may simply dismiss the attacks as the excesses of nationalism because the vision of an all-embracing Rainbow Nation also presupposes the idea of the nation state. But of course, we know better, or should, that neither nationalism nor economic arguments are sufficient. Rather, my argument would be that as much as people want to consign apartheid and other colonialisms to some forgotten distant past, their spirits continue to haunt us in this present day.
Thus the xenophobic attacks we witnessed should be located within the co-ordinates of colonialism, racism, and the economic underdevelopment of black people. But I go further than just blaming the past, because the blame lies more firmly elsewhere, in the strategies used to overcoming that past. When the poor of the townships were promised heaven and earth after the democracy they have a right to expect nothing less. The unemployed young man in idling in the townships of Alexandra who sees the ostentatious wealth in gated Sandton owned by other people who look like him knows that there is enough for everyone. TV relentlessly shows us Black upwardly mobile people, BUPPIES, nor do newspapers tire of telling us of the fabulous wealth of the new Black bourgeoisie nor of the last multi-million Rand BEE deal. In other words, xenophobic violence should lie on the shoulders of the rapacious need for accumulation of the new black economic and political elite. The fruits of the democracy have not been spread evenly.
Thus, in their amnesia feathered by sweetened BEE deals and Affirmative Action and the ” I am the first black to do this and …so forth…” in their suburban condors…
…the working class of the towns, the masses of unemployed, the small artisans and craftsmen for their part line up behind this nationalist attitude; but in all justice let it be said, they only follow in the steps of their [black] bourgeoisie. If the national bourgeoisie goes into competition with the Europeans, the artisans and craftsmen start a fight against non-national Africans. In the Ivory Coast, the anti-Dahoman and anti-Voltaic troubles are in fact racial riots. The Dahoman and Voltaic peoples, who control the greater part of the petty trade, are, once independence is declared, the object of hostile manifestations on the part of the people of the Ivory Coast. From nationalism we have passed to ultra-nationalism, to chauvinism, and finally to racism. These foreigners are called to leave; their shops are burned, the street stall are wrecked… (The Wretched of the Earth).
It was in 1961 when Frantz Fanon wrote these words! This untidy BEE of the poor. of South Africa’s townships Prophetic words they might seem, but they were meant as warning to future generations not to fall into the same pitfalls. We did. But I hope the powers that shall right their mistakes.
I hope they do because for many immigrants like me the past is another country. We live in desperate longing for acceptance in the present, in the place where we live and have learnt to love. But as Salman Rushdie reminds immigrants in Imaginary Homelands, ‘it’s the present that is a foreign country and the past that is home’. I hope he’s wrong.