SAIRR Today: Denialism all over again - 19th July 2010

It is odd that just two weeks after the country was taken over by Ghana-mania, reports of xenophobic attacks against immigrants from other African countries are making the headlines. How could the feeling that ‘we are all Africans’ vanish so quickly? Perhaps in the dazzle of the international spotlight and being swept away by the celebratory mood it was natural for South Africans to show allegiance to their continent, but the underlying factors that explained the xenophobic attacks in 2008 - and since - have not changed.

It is a great shame that after the success of the World Cup we face the grim prospect of renewed xenophobic violence, but the reality is that attacks on foreigners have never completely subsided since such violence made local and international headlines in 2008. For example, in January 2009 two Zimbabweans died in attacks on foreigners at a refugee hostel in Durban. In the middle of 2009 there were attacks on Somali and Ethiopian shop-owners in communities in Cape Town and Mpumalanga. The Mail & Guardian ran a feature on xenophobic sentiment brewing in Gauteng in October 2009.
These are just some of the stories that have featured in the Press, yet it is clear that the view held by some that African immigrants are stealing jobs and are responsible for crime did not disappear when the violence in 2008 died down, and such attitudes are not confined to one part of the country.

This may be inevitable in some respects. South Africa is a beacon of economic prosperity in sub-Saharan Africa, and it is not surprising that people from other countries in the region should want to come here. Immigration is likely to be an issue for this country as much as it is for the wealthy countries of the West for a long time to come. Indeed, the country’s ability to deal with the influx of immigrants is the elephant in the room, a debate which people are reluctant to engage in. It is not even known how many of the foreigners in South Africa are here lawfully. Is it possible to deal with xenophobic violence if we do not know the scale of the problem of illegal immigrants? The fact that the country’s borders remain porous, the reports that there is widespread corruption among officials, and the availability of fraudulent documents are all issues which come down to the effectiveness of the State.

While it is easy to blame apartheid for current problems, the legacy left by racial oppression may also play a role here, in a number of ways. Perhaps apartheid has instilled a mindset in people about the way in which the lowliest in society can be treated that is proving hard to shake off. Maybe the struggle against apartheid has created a particularly fiery brand of protest, one that involves violence at times, and so protesting against foreigners in a violent way does not seem unusual or unacceptable to some.

These factors may all play a role, but there is one explanation that is more convincing than all the others. This is that people are so desperate and frustrated with their situation, one involving joblessness, high levels of crime, and poor service delivery, that they have turned to blaming the most obvious scapegoats in their communities. This could also explain why this sort of violence is confined to some of the country’s poorest communities. It is notable in this context that this is selective xenophobia: it is not directed at all foreigners, but specifically at black people from other African countries, who are perhaps viewed as competition for low-skilled jobs – or customers – and the cause of crime.

Moreover, those perpetrating the violence have not received clear signals that what they are doing is wrong. The Star reported this week that of the 62 murders attributed to the outbreak of xenophobic violence in 2008, there have been only two convictions. This figure could be read as indifference on the part of the authorities.

The Government is still giving out mixed messages. The minister of police, Mr Nathi Mthethwa, has been quoted as dismissing reports of foreigners fleeing Cape Town as ‘hysteria’ and has claimed that the Media and political forces are playing up the threat of xenophobic violence in order to dampen the success of the country’s hosting of the World Cup. Ms Nomvula Mokonyane, Gauteng premier, said, ‘We don’t actually believe South Africans are xenophobic. We see [the violence] as a pure act of criminality.’

The denial on the part of the ANC that xenophobia is behind this violence is dangerous. The Government is right that the acts of violence are criminal, but the evidence suggests that the attitudes driving them are xenophobic. Denying this reality will undermine efforts to stem the violence, as the causes of it need to be understood and acknowledged by the authorities.

Why is the ANC denying the xenophobic nature of this violence? Who or what could they be defending? Perhaps they believe their own supporters are among those who hold xenophobic views. Maybe the ANC is defending the historical status of black South Africans as victims. We can only speculate on the explanation, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that the ruling party is refusing publicly to accept the existence of xenophobia, a stance which is reminiscent of the AIDS denialism which President Thabo Mbeki led and in which the ANC acquiesced.

Yet, at the same time, the police and even the army have been deployed to potential hotspots around the country and an inter-ministerial committee on xenophobia has been convened, chaired by Mr Mthethwa. Clearly the Government is taking the threats and reports of violence seriously at one level, but it would be easy to believe that the concern being showed by politicians is only because of the embarrassment a fresh wave of attacks would bring to the country in the wake of the World Cup while there are still foreign journalists and investors with their eye on the country.

It is true that an outbreak of violence similar to the one experienced in 2008 could undo a lot of the gains the country has made during the tournament in terms of its appeal to foreign investors and visitors. However, the Government needs to send a clear message that their concern about xenophobic violence is not simply cosmetic, and that it is based on the belief that violence of this sort is unequivocally wrong at all times. The deployment of the police and army will have limited effect given the ease with which a minority can sweep decent people into a mob in the absence of any clear message from the authorities that what they are doing is wrong.

- Lucy Holborn