Just don't mention xenophobia

It seems that it is South African government policy to steer clear, at all costs, from calling the attacks on foreign nationals, by their proper name: xenophobic. This attitude is nothing new, and has been the unstated policy of the African National Congress (ANC) since 2008, when riots left 62 people dead; although 21 of those killed were South Africans.

July 3rd, 2013

It seems that it is South African government policy to steer clear, at all costs, from calling the attacks on foreign nationals, by their proper name: xenophobic. This attitude is nothing new, and has been the unstated policy of the African National Congress (ANC) since 2008, when riots left 62 people dead; although 21 of those killed were South Africans.

South Africa had been warned about the menace of xenophobia two years before, when it was under review of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM). The body’s report, endorsed by the heads of state of the other countries taking part in the APRM said: "SA shares the view that more needs to be done to fight xenophobia."

However, it also quoted former president Thabo Mbeki, a champion of the African Union mechanism: "The report notes that xenophobic tendencies prevail, which is simply not true."

Denials then, denials now … maybe not, just "sidestepping the issue" would perhaps be a better description of the attitude of the government.

I was grilled in Parliament by the portfolio committee on public administration, when I presented the APRM Monitoring and Advocacy Template’s findings on South Africa’s progress towards implementing the national programme of action, and I raised the issue of xenophobia. I was told no such thing existed. The ANC’s MC Mohale said civil society organisations involved with disability were not represented in the report. She also asked why xenophobia was highlighted as a challenge if the initiative differentiated between what was xenophobia and what was crime.

Meanwhile, the ANC’s Mduduzi Manana also raised the fact that people with disabilities were not represented. I replied that, under the particular section of managing diversity, uppermost on the list of challenges the APRM identified was xenophobia. The country review report said such a menace would, if not addressed, explode.

A year later, the reviewers were proven right. Further, the Department of Public Service and Administration has said this is a priority, and praise must be given to it for mustering the commitment to address the issue as an opportunity has now arisen to put in place some of the recommendations the APRM monitoring project study is proposing for this year’s national APRM consultations.

So one can see that even lawmakers share the same view as Mbeki, as far back as seven years ago, and now almost two years after my encounter with MPs in South Africa, the same attitude persists. The baffling stance of deliberate "muddling" and either immersing the issue of intolerance into muddied water and merging it with disability and criminality, or dismissing the severity of the problem, points to exactly what the real make-up of subliminal thinking at leadership level is: .

This was further proven recently. A government press release, issued towards the end of May, says: "Government has noted with concern so-called xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals." What does this "so-called" mean? It either is or it is not. And apparently, in the government’s eyes, it really is not.

So the question now being asked is: how many attacks will it take for assaults on foreigners by South Africans to qualify as xenophobia?

And how long should these attacks be allowed to go on (it has been going on since 1994) before South African politicians, policy and law makers actually begin to learn to pronounce and say the word: x.e.n.o.p.h.o.b.i.a?

Because as long as leaders keep telling us there is no such problem in a country that bears the scars of intolerance and bigotry, non-indigenised South Africans — whose nations contributed to the fall of apartheid and helped to champion the nation’s freedom and independence through the provision of safe havens, sacrificing blood, sweat, tears, men and materiel — will continuously be told that they don’t belong and some will even be killed for being different.

Yet we have just loudly proclaimed an African Renaissance in an age in which a golden jubilee of the African project of unity was celebrated on the distant shores of Addis Ababa, the continent’s political capital. Meanwhile, in the streets of Pretoria, a loud silence about how Africans are being treated by their own befalls a nation that knows only too well what it means to be told that they did not belong.

How quickly we forget.

This on the Business Day website.

Contacts

  • 1 Hood Avenue/148 Jan Smuts; Rosebank, GP 2196; South Africa
  • T. +27 (0)11 587 5000
  • F. +27 (0)11 587 5099