How xenophobia threatens us and the future

From The Mercury, 13th April 2015

Most Mercury readers, I guess, are those unlikely to feel directly threatened by xenophobia and have a sense of distance from the issues. My warning is that xenophobia is a danger not just to African foreigners, but to all of us. It is a way in which violence is condoned and even celebrated, and we are all potentially the victims of such violence. It is a knife at our throats.

In the debates over Rhodes and his legacy an element has not been touched on – that the colonial powers and Rhodes himself fixed borders and determined boundaries between African people. African states, at the end of colonialism, felt that they had little choice but to accept these borders as given. What we are not compelled to do is to emphasise the differences created by these largely artificial borders.

Once this is done, populist politicians can easily blame foreigners in the country for their own failings, or make a name for themselves based on displays of aggression against foreigners. This has happened in Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast. In some countries, laws that deny full citizenship to those whose parents were born elsewhere have been used against political opponents.

Why do I think the current attacks are damaging to all of us and not just to the immediate casualties?

First, the xenophobic attacks are displays and celebrations of criminality. When South Africans complain about crime but are complacent at seeing acts of assault and theft, we are not truly committed to end crime. If you can justify criminal action against others, then on what basis do you challenge it when you are the target?   Further, if people who are openly involved in attacking foreigners and looting from them are not charged, it weakens the credibility of policing.

Secondly, the attacks reinforces the belief that violence is the way to resolve conflict and undermine the democratic institutions set up to resolve conflicts.

Thirdly, this is a systematic process of undermining the culture of human rights central to our Constitution. South Africans know that the Constitution confers rights on us. I think they do not know that it goes further, it ‘enshrines the rights of all people in our country’, South Africans or not. These rights should be advanced both through legal structures and people’s everyday conduct. Instead, we are witnessing the direct violation of our rights.


Fourthly, xenophobia entrenches racism. This is creating a new racial category, with its own stereotypes, its own racist names. It affirms the logic of racism that has continued to divide our society and create enmity and exclusion.

Finally, the civic leader in New Germany Road informal settlement who said that foreigners must go, because ‘their businesses are thriving and ours are not’ captured an important point. By implication, success is threatening and the successful must be punished. Leave us to be a nation of losers.

Migrants bring skills and initiative. Remove the migrants, and you remove elements of innovation that the economy and the society need. The civic leader thinks this ‘our businesses’ will thrive in the absence of migrants, not realising that businesses run without skill and hard work will fail, competition or not.

We have a lot to learn from foreigners who set up businesses with little capital and no government support. South Africans could be going into business with them, but this requires a climate of mutual trust that is currently being undermined.

One must tackle the justification of xenophobia based on the criminal behaviour of some migrants with contempt. We South Africans would be hugely offended if we were all judged internationally on the basis of the well-known criminal activities of some our compatriots. The same applies to foreigners: apprehend the criminals, support the law-abiding.

Those who demand the removal of ‘illegal’ foreigners should first insist that processes are followed to legalise the presence of those who are legitimately here.

Given these dangers, what needs to be done? One element is highlighting the experiences of South Africans in exile. I interviewed one who spoke of the remarkable hospitality he received in Zambia while in military training. Beyond hospitality, there were those foreigners who harboured South African exiles and died as a result.

Finally, we are witnessing a shocking failure of leadership. We need clear and unequivocal statements from leaders – political, civic, traditional – backed with systematic and impartial policing. It was heartening to hear the eThekwini Mayor’s representative on radio, spelling out the issues around foreigners – their rights, the difficulties they face – and to read of local and provincial leadership’s positive interventions. It was heartening to hear Mangosuthu Buthelezi denouncing the attacks, and reminding us of our role in the African Union. There has though been silence or worse from too many other leaders.

Crispin Hemson is Director of the International Centre of Nonviolence, Durban University of Technology.

End the racial narrative of Israel and the West

Published in The Mercury 11th August 2014

I have a confession to make. In 1974 I stole municipal property with an accomplice. We went out one evening to unscrew apartheid signs on bus shelters.

Read now, they seem simply weird. ‘Europeans Only. Slegs Blankes.’ Yet to people of that time and place, they were ‘reality’. Everyone knew who was meant to sit there, and who not: there were shared understandings that now seem incomprehensible. No wonder young Black people struggle to make sense of the apartheid era.

However bizarre, these signs were an integral part of the racial narrative of South Africa. This asserted that we Whites were upholders of civilisation in a dark continent. Look at our technology, our democracy, our systems, against the backwardness and violence of Africa. We could even build nuclear weapons (though that was secret).

The idea of living with others as equals was a naïve and sentimental delusion. It was our responsibility to keep control over the rest of the population, who were so easily misled by terrorists. Acts of resistance were violence and demonstrated what we were up against. In this narrative, it was natural that Whites would control all major resources, that Black people would be pushed into smaller and constantly more crowded enclaves. Our security forces would make incursions into these enclaves to punish those who refused to accept the logic of our narrative.

This now seems so pernicious that one can forget how persuasive it was. Even Whites who disliked those in power went along with it. The minority who rejected it totally it were treated as traitors. And one can so easily forget how many lives were maimed and broken by a narrative that demanded more and more violence with time.

I can compare it with the anti-Semitic narrative of the 1930s, of innocent Germans threatened by evil plotting. Nazi images presented the Jew as the ritual murderer who would eat Christian children. This dark, rounded, manipulator of money was contrasted with the golden-haired maiden, with the muscular, clean-living young man with sharply-defined features.

However grotesque and bizarre these images, like the crude caricatures of Black people in the cartoons of the apartheid era, they worked. They enabled the killing of millions and silenced opposition. It is a narrative that has still not died in Europe and Russia; the violence of that narrative is still denied.

I don’t think we can understand the Middle East without seeing the racial narrative that informs the West and Israel. In this reading, civilised, advanced Israel is set against the barbarism and authoritarianism of Arabs. ‘Reasonable’ Western accounts of the Middle East portray Israelis as a small minority surrounded by people who by nature are hostile and anti-democratic. Resistance is ‘terror’.

Naturally, the West should ally itself with the one true democracy. So the West’s language of human rights is dropped in favour of ‘legitimate security concerns’; it assumes the impossibility of treating Jews and Arabs as equally human. Liberal commentators deplore violence, but themselves buy into a narrative that is fundamentally violent.

This narrative gives birth to madness. We had racial signs on bus shelters; Israel has freeways linking it to Jewish settlements on seized Palestinian land. Palestinians may not use them and they block passage through Palestinian areas.

To me, this narrative is as familiar as that of apartheid. It is also a narrative that lets the West off the hook. The Holocaust was a Western, not Arab, phenomenon. Western countries not guilty of the Holocaust refused to accept Jews fleeing the Nazis. There had been centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, centuries of Jews being refused the right to own land, or being confined to ghettoes.

In contrast, for centuries Jews had lived in harmony with Christian and Muslim Arabs across the Middle East. Generally Jews enjoyed greater security under Muslim rule than under Christian rule.

And as for the authoritarian nature of Muslim states, do people know that Britain and the US smashed the first Iranian democracy in 1953 and installed a repressive regime and that they armed repressive (and anti-Semitic) rulers and protected them against their populations? Take Bahrain now as an example.

The fact that this narrative is pernicious does not mean that it lacks power. It justifies to Israelis the continuing displacement of Palestinians, the language of ‘terrorism’, the silencing of questions over how violence is used, the failure to take responsibility for the deaths of families. It justifies to the United States that it supplies armaments that it knows will be used against civilians.

Challenge this narrative as an Israeli and you are branded a traitor. Criticise Israel and you get the shrill defensiveness that I recall so well from the apologists of apartheid: We are not understood. We are the victims. You don’t understand Africa. You don’t understand the Middle East. There is a total onslaught against us.

It is time to end this narrative. Let it go the way of apartheid.

Crispin Hemson is Director of the International Centre of Nonviolence, based at Durban University of Technology

What is the link between nonviolence and urban ecology?


Wildlife belongs in the city 
by Crispin Hemson Hemson is the director of the International Centre for Nonviolence, based at the Durban University of Technology, and is also with the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa.
The Mercury
24 Feb 2014

EARLY this month there was a noise out on the patio late in the night, and I peered out. A dark shape moved across, smoothly. I reached for my camera and quietly opened the door. It stopped to rest and when I took the photo, it was not too disturbed by… read more…