By Loren B. Landau and Tara Polzer · 15 Jul 2010
For the past three months civil society organisations, academics and even some government officials have been warning that a new round of xenophobic attacks are coming soon after the World Cup has ended. Over the last two weeks, many of these same people have seen their world cup fever give way to a feverish effort to prevent (or at least prepare for) the forthcoming melee. No one has been readying themselves more fervently than migrants, many of whom have started packing and making their way to sites of safety either in South Africa or beyond its borders. Some have heard the dog barking and, remembering the brutal attacks of May 2008, fear its mortal bite.
Following last week’s meeting of the inter-ministerial committee dedicated to addressing the expected attacks, senior government officials have finally developed a coordinated, if somewhat ambivalent, approach to the relapse of xenophobic violence. Along with the firm (if fallacious) statements that South Africa is not a banana republic where people can murder with impunity –officials have been denying that the threats should be taken seriously. (South Africa may not be a banana republic, but only two of more than 60 murders during the 2008 attacks resulted in criminal conviction).
Just this week newspapers quoted President Zuma’s irresolute response: "I'm not certain whether there have been threats of xenophobia. I know that there have been rumours that have been reported." As of yet, he continued, there was no “concrete evidence” of attacks. The hundreds of Zimbabweans and others who are fleeing hostile communities are, if we are to believe what officials tell us, simply seasonal farm workers returning home. The attacks, which have already displaced scores of people to police stations in the Western Cape, are simply opportunistic criminality ‘disguised’ as xenophobia.
The Minister and Deputy Ministers of Police and others have accused ‘prophets of doom’ and ‘afropessimists’ of trying to rob South Africa and, presumably, the ANC of its World Cup glory by talking about xenophobia. This amounts to holding the long-term national security of the country to ransom for the short-term international reputation gained from wondrously hosting an athletic spectacle. The denialist rhetoric also belies the very real investment the government is making in police and army deployments in communities to prevent outbreaks or to respond to violence. Perhaps we should judge the government’s response by its actions rather than its words: in that case there is indeed much to commend and many lessons which have clearly been learned from 2008.
However, the words of senior politicians do have significant impacts. Stating that the attacks are ‘mere rumours’ or ‘mere crime’ is worrying on a number of levels. Most obviously, it reveals government leaders who are either deeply out of touch with their own intelligence and police services, or who are willing to publically prevaricate about acute threats to the security of the country’s residents. Police and intelligence services have been warning of rising tensions and the seriousness of threats since early in the year, well before any public or media discussions which are now accused of ‘creating’ or ‘fuelling’ violence. At what point do distributing threatening pamphlets, regular verbal threats in communities (some made openly into TV cameras and to newspaper journalists), and community meetings in which people outline their plans to get rid of foreigners constitute more than a rumour? Whatever the reasons for their response, all South African residents will be the losers.
What we have seen over the past few weeks is not only a government unwilling to acknowledge the threat of xenophobic violence, but an administration that seeks to overtly deny others the possibility of raising the warning flag. Claims that hateful murder are simply criminal opportunisms both echoes apartheid era claims that township violence was anything but political and distracts us from the issue at hand. To be sure, in South African law, any verbal threat or physical attack on life or dignity is a crime. Recognising this begs the question why there has not been a stronger and much earlier response from the security agencies. It seems that since the attacks are ‘merely’ criminal, our Minister of Police is suggesting that ‘normal’ criminality is not a problem or a priority.
Moreover, by denying ‘xenophobia’ as a motivation, the Inter-Ministerial Committee does not acknowledge and cannot explain why specific groups are targeted. Labelling an attack xenophobically motivated does not mean that all South Africans are consumed by bigotry and hatred. However, some people regularly single out specific groups for abuse, explicitly couching their threats in discriminatory language. If shouts of “you Makwerekwere get out” are, indeed, disguising’ alternative motivations, as Mthethwa suggests, local political and business interests are playing on existing sentiments and anger. These attacks may be criminal, but they ignore the tools - hatred, bigotry, and a willingness to turn to violence - than enable them. By shifting the blame for violence to purportedly ’unpatriotic’ or ‘afropessimist’ (read racist) individuals, media outlets, and institutions that speak openly about the violence, the Minister is taking aim at the messengers, not the perpetrators. This is surely a dangerous trend for a democratic country that is at least formally committed to a culture of open and public debate.
If we are lucky enough to avoid the conflagrations that caught hold in 2008, let us not forget that the dog has already bit. Just this week, a Ghanaian was shot down in the streets of Khayelitsha, flying straight in the face of the heart warming pan-African solidarity mustered during the World Cup. A few days earlier, passengers shouting insults against foreigners threw a Zimbabwean out of a moving train. How is that ‘opportunistic crime’? Moreover, hundreds if not thousands of people have fled their homes in the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng out of fear. Such uprooting comes at significant costs to those on the run and to South Africa as a whole, illustrating a lack of confidence in the state’s ability to protect its residents. As much as the government deserves to bask in its World Cup victory, the international and continental media are already taking notice.
Which is worse for the country: violence and fear, or a government ready to deny that ethnic cleansing is being attempted on its watch? While the Minister of Police is right that the rest of the world is also grappling with the tensions of living with diversity, this does not reduce the urgency of finding locally appropriate ways of living with difference here. Denying that ethnic, national and other divisions exist will not help us in our search.
The lives and livelihoods of foreigners and other outsiders are now at risk. This should alarm us. What should worry us more are threats to political credibility and an open society where elected officials heed warnings, accurately identify and diagnose problems and treat the population - regardless of origins - with respect and provide them the security they deserve.
Landau and Polzer are Researchers with the Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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