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EDITORIAL: South Africa cannot deny its xenophobia issue

Business Day

THE use of the “X-word” in public in SA is becoming as taboo as the “K-word”. Minister in the Presidency Buti Manamela led a prayer meeting in Soweto at the weekend at which politicians, state officials and leaders of civil society were unanimous in their condemnation of last week’s attacks on township shops owned by foreigners, but most studiously avoided the word “xenophobia”.

One reason is that it is embarrassing for SA’s political leaders to have to admit that South Africans harbour such seething animosity towards foreign immigrants that they do not hesitate to attack them and loot their shops at the slightest provocation.

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Yet this is a reality: a study conducted among township residents less than six months ago by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory, a joint venture by several universities and metro governments, found that 35% of respondents wanted “all foreigners” to be evicted.

It is even more embarrassing that this undeniable prejudice all too often takes the form of “Afrophobia”, the xenophobic hatred of African immigrants in particular. Life in SA’s townships is certainly no picnic for Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese or Indian merchants, who are far more vulnerable to crime than locals, but they are seldom targeted by rampaging mobs in the way Somali, Ethiopian, Zimbabwean or Malawian traders may be.

Far less discomforting to describe the problem as “rampant criminality”, which of course is accurate. Attacking people and stealing their possessions is a crime whatever your motivation. The truth, as confirmed by the authorities through the fact that they immediately sent police to protect only foreign-owned shops and advised their owners to evacuate, is that xenophobia is a significant factor in the attacks, which have been occurring in cycles since 2008.

Opportunistic criminals jump on the bandwagon, as they do when a truck overturns or protesters loot the stalls of pavement vendors, and this regrettable tendency is clearly made worse by high unemployment and general economic stress. But poverty is not the catalyst.

Immigrants, especially those from Somalia and Ethiopia, are feared and hated because they are good at what they do — usually better than their South African counterparts. They co-operate with each other, form networks to buy in bulk and undercut the competition, and are generally more entrepreneurial. That is at least partly a result of the fact that many African immigrants have had to learn to survive by their wits and labour, whereas apartheid denied black South Africans both a sound education and access to capital. But precious little has been done over the 20 years of democracy to remedy the situation.

On the contrary, the culture of entitlement that persuades all too many unemployed township dwellers that they can do nothing to improve their situation without state assistance has been encouraged by the governing party.

It is debatable whether that has been deliberate as a means of cultivating a passive, dependent electorate, or through misguided confidence that an all-powerful state must and will provide.

However, if it is solutions we are after, avoiding reality out of political embarrassment is an obstacle that needs to be removed post-haste. A 2009 study by the International Organisation for Migration concluded xenophobic attacks in SA were frequently organised and led by aggrieved local business owners motivated by selfish gain, or individuals wanting to consolidate political power in the community.

With local government elections due next year, there is a danger the latter group will become more active in the coming months.

SA’s xenophobic culture will take years to change, but steps can and must be taken immediately to provide more effective physical protection to immigrants.

 

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