Is the attack on foreign nationals criminality or xenophobia?

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MINISTER of International Relations and Co-operation Lindiwe Sisulu addresses the media in Pretoria yesterday after meeting African ambassadors about the recent attacks on foreign nationals. Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

The recent outbreak  of xenophobia attacks  poses a serious dent on South Africa’s standing as a leading country in the continent. South Africa will soon take up the chair of the AU and would not  relish any lingering doubts about her credible relations with the people of the continent. She has just assumed the seat in the United Nations Security Council ostensibly as a representative of the people of Africa. 

Whatever the explanation that  seek to account and contextualise  these acts pf barbarism, they are just abominable and recur with an irritating frequency. Each time they flare up they take us back to the sad path of self- hate and recrimination. Under president Thabo Mbeki SouthAfrica ushered a new political, economic and a philosophical relationship with the continent. These were the years of euphoria and great expectations, as Charles Dickens would have characterized them. The high economic  growth  coupled  with the Mandela mania brought to our shores various migrants of all hues. Most were legal and the majority were illegal. Some were escaping tyrannical  rule whereas others were mostly seeking economic  emancipation. 

Inasmuch as Thabo Mbeki had espoused  African Rennaisence it had very little resonance with the common man and woman on the street. Public education and public consciousness about our integral and intrinsic affinity to Africa and its people was conspicuously lagging. We have hosted people from the continent for more than three hundred years 

Faced with the influx of  African migrants since 1994, the common man had to craft his/ her own response. New High voltage churches soon followed the shop keeper in their trail taking up and competing with local denominations. Soon most local shop keepers were eclipsed and overrun.  Even the sheer numbers of these new arrivals became worrisome.  It is argued that there could be about 6million so-called illegal immigrants. 

Against this backdrop you have the added endemic culture of rampant corruption at the borders that saw millions more crossing through even hardened criminals. This fact was complicated by our immigration processing mechanisms that seemed to have been found wanting. When the floodgates became wide open even the RDP houses were bought from the indigent beneficiaries, them there was no turning back. 

The failure of local government  to enforce their own regulations in relation to starting a businesses saw the virtual take over and daylight hijack of the local township economy by Pakistanis and Ethiopians.  People just erect a tent  in the open and call  that a church. The failure by the department of Health to enforce compliance with health standards  of goods that are sold in these shops saw many fake products making their way to the homes of the poorest of our people. Tax collections from these business does not exist with most rather preferring  cash transactions. 

The domestic worker  market has been virtually taken over by people from Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia. They are paid slightly  less and are rumoured to  be hard working.  Most of the restaurants prefer Zimbabwean staff given their culinary skills. The Basotho are also expert farm workers while the Mozambiquen  people possess physical and mechanical skills. Most Congolese work in various professions with their low skills workers guarding cars in most complexes.

Given the depravity faced by most African people in the continent, they have acquired a array and an assortment of skills for self reliance. They are viewed as frugal and dedicated and would work long hours because they have to repatriate most of their earnings back home to their families. Most of these countries are to a large extent sustained by foreign remittances.  So, to them the idea of work means more than just a vocational obligation but is an expression of their shouldered historical burdens and the hope they bring to their families and communities

When Nkwame Nkrumah liberated Ghana he made a clarion call to all African countries to send their skilled professionals to help in the development of his country. South Africa sent hordes of teachers including Eskia Mphahlele. The same was the case with most liberated countries because there is no country that can develop on its own. 

In the current case of South Africa whiles skilled labour was sourced from the continent, and the lower end artisan skilled followed, the local populace was not drastically upscaled in terms of skills. On average  the SouthAfrican youth lacks the critical skills to work with his hands and this employ others. As a result competition low skilled jobs become inevitable. Youth obsession with degrees has left them unemployed given the shrinking job market.

Competition for low skilled jobs is an old phenomenon that even predates the discovery of mines at the end of the 18th century.  Rural migrants were looked upon with scorn as they took most of the low  menial jobs  that the township folks found beneath their status. Township folks were content with better jobs  in the cities. This acrimonious relationship did not translate into open conflict as it was only in the early 1980’s that tensions arose with  the so-called
Third Force that  targeted hostels and fueled rivalry.  South Africans have coexisted with African migrants for a long time without any conflicts. What has changed now? 

The recent attacks on some 300 Malawian citizens in Durban was irrational as it is disgusting.  What makes matters worse is the incorrect diagnosis of the heinous act as merely the agency of criminality. It can’t be criminality  when 300 Malawians are targeted for being Malawian and attacked.  This is a targeted attack against a selected people who are deemed to be  easy and vulnerable victims because they have no secured legal standing in this country. This is pure and simple xenophobia and not criminality.  

A Malawian gardener of a friend was stabbed four times and nothing was taken from him as would be the case in an event of crime. Edward ‘s sin was that he was Malawian.  Mido Marcia was dragged from behind the police van in Daveyton because he was Mozambiquen. Emmanuel Sithole was stabbed to death in Alexander where criminality was the second consideration that was surpassed by his so-called foreign extraction.

Failure to enforce our regulations  will unwittingly fuel xenophobia and escalating criminality .For example most truck businesses employ so- called foreigners and the same applies to most restaurants. Has the department of labour ever challenged these companies on their employment practices to establish rational? Have they ever asked whether these companies pay the required wage?  

I am certain that these truck companies hire these so-called illegal immigrants because they pay them far below the minimum wage. Failure to enforce compliance is  regrettable. 

So, crime , methinks, is a convenient alibi that conceals Afrophobia. When a Ethiopian shop keeper kills a local who was caught in the act of stealing from the shop, that incident will spark a serious reprisal and community anger. Shops will be torched and looted. Criminals will exploit xenophobia for their immediate ends given the high unemployment rate. But when a few white boys in the  Vaal recently attacked and killed a black youth in a road range, there were no reprisals. Self- hate and self- denigration which is the fundamental consequence of a colonized people will be the hardest to defeat even with a litany of progressive legislation. 

It is time that we target to decolonize the mind of the hitherto oppressed people to embrace a broader appreciation of their Africanness and a Pan African outlook. The blood of our fellow African brothers and sisters will haunt us for many years. Aberjhani once  wrote that “ beneath the armor of skin and bone and mind most of our colors are amazingly the same.”


Thami ka Plaatjie is a Member of ministerial International Relations  Review Panel.