Xenophobia is the Elephant in the Room

LOVENESS James, 22, and her friend Marriam Mbambichi, 25, both from Malawi, spent a night at Sydenham police station last week following a flare-up of xenophobic violence in the Durban suburb. Zanele Zulu African News Agency (ANA)

Sometimes facing the truth we’re afraid of is what makes us who we’re really supposed to be – a wise woman once said. This week I thought of that quote as the controversy around xenophobia and criminality raged in the wake of recent attacks against foreign nationals. What is apparent is that perhaps we shouldn’t be so caught up in definitions that we fail to see the wood for the trees.

What happened in Durban last week to hundreds of Malawians where three were killed and many attacked, was both criminal and xenophobic. As was the brutal stabbing of Edward Kanyemba, a Malawian in Diepsloot last Saturday who was stabbed multiple times simply for being a foreigner. What makes a criminal act xenophobic is the deliberate targeting of foreign nationals.

The current targeting of foreign nationals is so sensitive and hurtful for us not only because they are our African brothers and sisters, but also thatSouth Africa is indebted to our neighbouring countries for the steadfast support they gave our liberation movements during the anti-apartheid struggle. This generosity of spirit knew no bounds, and without which our liberation would have taken far longer.

Our liberation fighters had a presence in Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania and other African countries even further afield. Many of these countries gave our liberation movements land, resources, training, and even access to social services. This was the brotherly love and solidarity which many of us remain deeply grateful for.

That is why it is so difficult to accept that there is a devastating trend that foreign nationals are being targeting in our society, and that these are hate crimes. But if we don’t acknowledge the demon of xenophobia when it exists, we will never be able to effectively address the problem.

What I was exposed to this week left me with no doubt that xenophobia is very much a reality in our country, but our challenge now is to address the root causes of it and raise awareness both within the public and the police force so that we can stamp it out.

As it turns out, the Malawian who was brutally stabbed in Diepsloot almost a week ago is someone I know personally. It was a xenophobic attack clear and simple – his attackers were aware of his foreign accent when he asked them for directions. When they refused to provide the requested directions and he turned and walked away, they descended on him as he crossed the road – stabbing him four times in the base of his spine and three times in the upper arm. It was an attack motivated by pure hatred or resentment merely because he was a foreigner. The attackers left him bleeding profusely in the road and never even attempted to take his money, phone, or carry bag. 

The story just gets more heart breaking from there. Not one of the onlookers who screamed in horror came to his rescue, nor did they rush to the police station nearby and summon help. But at least an ambulance was called. The ambulance took him to Tembisa hospital, where he was given medical assistance for only 48 hours, after which he was turfed out to make way for other victims of stabbings. Late at night he was discharged in the rain – hardly able to walk with no transport to get to Mamelodi. In ordinary circumstances it would have taken three taxis to get to where he was staying, but at that time of the night it took an eternity in excruciating pain.

With only painkillers in hand, the following day he proceeded to another hospital to try to get treatment for his wounds. It was then that I was made aware of his situation and joined him there to try and ensure that he did indeed receive treatment. The admitting nurses relayed a terrible reality – that often at month end the hospital is filled with victims of stabbing attacks, many of them foreign nationals. There was a general consensus among the medical staff that we spoke to that xenophobia is rampant on the ground, and that foreign nationals bare the brunt of local anger at the lack of jobs, opportunities, and social services.

As my friend sat in a wheelchair in the casualty section of Mamelodi hospital waiting to be attended to by a doctor, the woman in the wheelchair next to him said she had been sitting there since the previous day waiting for a doctor to see her. Now that Kanyemba is recovering from his wounds, he says the daily xenophobia he experiences will continue. He, as many other foreigners will attest to on the ground, is regularly accused of bringing disease and HIV/AIDS to South Africa, of coming from a dictatorship, and stealing South African jobs. 

It is time for us to face the truth we are afraid to confront – that xenophobia is rampant in our country but the question is: what are we going to do about it?

Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for the Independent Media Group.