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Dear South Africa, Call Xenophobia by its Name and Address it

It was on 18th May 2008 when a discarded car tyre was placed around the neck of a young man and he was set alight by a mob in the Ramaphosa settlement of Johannesburg. The next day, the image of the burning man was splashed across the front pages of newspapers all over the country. Thereafter, the grim image found its way on to the internet and to several newspapers across the world. For a few days, no one knew the name of the burning man until a newspaper identified him as Ernesto Alphabeto Nhamuvane, a Mozambican national. That image of the burning black man in the streets of Johannesburg in 2008 is still stuck in the memories of many people across Africa and the world. We have not forgotten; we should never forget the burning man. 

What followed the image of the burning man was a wave of attacks on foreigners which spread quickly sending shock waves across Africa and the world. Foreigners hastened to move out of South Africa. Indeed they used all means possible, including the most unconventional, to get out of the country as soon and as fast as they could. We heard of people who walked for several days to cross the border. South Africa had become hostile. Hostile to the very people that worked day and night to support the economy; hostile to the very sons and daughters of Africa; most of whom had slightly over a decade earlier celebrated the independence of a country marking the end of apartheid and freedom of the black people. The black had turned against the black.

Many more foreigners, mainly black, were displaced and the government allowed the building of refugee camps in several parts of the country. It had become clear that the legal regime of rights and the law had failed both the subaltern citizens of the country and the foreigners in their midst.

But beyond the horrifying image of the burning man was a scale of the mayhem and murder of the “national other.” It was xenophobic violence. With waves of xenophobic attacks in South Africa in different times, in different forms at different locations, the violence is almost becoming a ritual. It is no longer possible to argue that such attacks are merely isolated incidents. They are not.

It is 2017and the latest outburst of xenophobic violence in South Africa’s political capital, Pretoria, and commercial capital, Johannesburg, is once again reverberating across the continent. Nigerians, in particular, are incensed. Protesters have attacked the premises of South Africa’s cellphone giant MTN in Abuja, while the Nigerian Senate has threatened to expel that and several other South African corporations, such as the retail chain Shoprite, and the TV service provider DSTV. Students in Nigeria protested at the South African High Commission in Abuja, burnt the country’s national flag and issued a 48-hour ultimatum to South African nationals to leave Nigeria. While the students have since been persuaded to calm down and not to effect their threats, tensions remain very high and hatred is in the air.  

Responses by South African authorities have not been impressive, neither has government demonstrated decisive leadership in bringing this menace to an end. Government’s responses to xenophobic attacks have always been reactive and short-lived, often uncoordinated. Xenophobia in South Africa is real so government cannot claim it gets caught by surprise when such waves of violence erupt. But then what is the Pretoria administration doing to comprehensively and perhaps conclusively address this matter? Indeed some leaders and politicians have been accused of inciting the attacks by blaming illegal immigrants for crime and lawlessness but most importantly by claiming that such foreigners are the reason for soaring unemployment in the country.

The position of political parties on South Africa’s xenophobia has remained quite vague. It is right to suspect that some of them are part of the problem. It is equally curious that the government, uncomfortable with xenophobia, always tries to find another term to assign to the attacks. For instance, last week’s violent march in Pretoria was christened a protest against crime, including drug-dealing and prostitution, rather than against foreigners. Fellow South Africans, unless you call xenophobia by its name you will never address it.

Perhaps, it is time to address irresponsibility and poor governance with its perennial baggage of scapegoatism. Blaming of poor government service delivery on foreigners would have the biggest impact on xenophobia, but is of course very hard to address because it demands better service delivery, which is a wider and chronic problem.

Xenophobia is not only giving South Africa a bad name on the continent, it is also hurting both economic and political relations of the country. This poses a risk both to Pretoria’s ambition to influence political and security affairs in Africa and to its critical economic investments on the continent. Xenophobia is hurting a South African as it hurts a foreigner. We must call it by its name and slay it if South Africa is to claim its place in Africa and if Africans are to claim their common identity as a people. 
Dear South Africa, Call Xenophobia by its Name and Address it Dear South Africa, Call Xenophobia by its Name and Address it Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on March 02, 2017 Rating: 5

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