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.