Vangi’s Voice: Call it what you want, it’s xenophobia

By Vangile Gantsho (@Vangi22)

Beyond that, however, much needs to be said about this ‘cut off your nose to spite your face’ mentality.  The same mind-set that torches clinics and libraries to protest service delivery is what makes people believe that burning down someone else’s shop, stealing from them and calling them makwerekwere will do anything to uplift your own situation.  All this does is entrench the breaking.  Children grow up thinking looting and violence is ok when it is targeted at the ‘other’ because they see their parents and law enforcement agencies doing it. A false sense of entitlement is created, where taking what you have not worked for becomes a celebrate option. And most tragically, we learn and pass on hate.

In the past few weeks, we have seen a wave of foreign nationals’ shops being looted by angry community members who claim that these foreigners are stealing opportunities from them. The looting began in Soweto but quickly spread to various townships across Gauteng, and has resulted in a number of fatalities, including two teenagers and a baby.  Government officials have resisted pressure from various human rights groups to call these attacks ‘xenophobic’, labelling them instead as acts of criminality, echoing sentiments from the 2008 xenophobic attacks:

“What happened during those days was not inspired by possessed nationalism, or extreme chauvinism, resulting in our communities violently expressing the hitherto unknown sentiments of mass and mindless hatred of foreigners—xenophobia… And this I must also say—none in our society has any right to encourage or incite xenophobia by trying to explain naked criminal activity by cloaking it in the garb of xenophobia.”  – Former President Thabo Mbeki, 03/07/08. 

One could be forgiven for having flashbacks of 2008, when attacks against foreign nationals were a nationwide phenomenon and lead to the deaths, injuries and displacement of thousands of Africans. This was one of the darkest periods in post apartheid South Africa, not only because of the actual physical violence, but because black people had turned against black people.

These attacks were not, and are not, targeted at white foreigners. Black locals are specifically targeting black foreigners. Black people who live in their communities and whose children attend the same schools as their children. I can think of no greater tragedy than the amount of brokenness it takes to get to such a point as a people.

Mak Manak once wrote:  “How dare you romanticize poverty/ Like it’s hip to b poor/ Or hip to be called a moor/ Do you know how they survive/ The tidal wave of life/ As it blows a child’s dream at the age of five…” In this poem (Home), he captures, quite vividly, the irrationality of being born in the depression. The ghetto. A housing system that was never designed to uplift the black person. Not physically, and certainly not psychologically.  In the ghetto, poor people fight each other for very little.  Now when you take people who are equally desperate, have crossed boarders in search for a ‘better life’, put them in the same ghetto and tell everyone to co-exist, othering and animosity seem inevitable. That doesn’t make it right. It just makes terrible sense, from the inside.

It has occurred to me quite often that the people who cry out the loudest about xenophobia are those who live in neighbourhoods outside the ghetto. Those who have more opportunities to work, earn a decent living and maybe even travel. People who have moved beyond physiological needs and safety on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Sounds too easy an excuse though, doesn’t it?  I mean, show me an African country that has not experienced extreme poverty.  Show me a black nation that does not have a ghetto? South African people are not the first to experience poverty.  Nor are we the first to survive dehumanisation. So we cannot allow all this breaking to bring us to a place of hate. Zambians opened up their homes to South African exiles during apartheid. Nigerians donated part of their household income to help finance the resistance movements of black South Africans.  Not to mention, the support we got from the likes of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Lesotho. How can we separate ourselves from people who, only a few decades ago, gave the very little they had to help us?

Beyond that, however, much needs to be said about this ‘cut off your nose to spite your face’ mentality.  The same mind-set that torches clinics and libraries to protest service delivery is what makes people believe that burning down someone else’s shop, stealing from them and calling them makwerekwere will do anything to uplift your own situation.  All this does is entrench the breaking.  Children grow up thinking looting and violence is ok when it is targeted at the ‘other’ because they see their parents and law enforcement agencies doing it. A false sense of entitlement is created, where taking what you have not worked for becomes a legitimate option. And most tragically, we learn and pass on hate.

Regardless of circumstance, we come from so much more than this. We are so much more beautiful than even our deepest scars. This broken does not belong to us. In the words of Lebohang ‘Nova’ Masango’s To Do List for Africa:

When you no longer hate

who you are

And the circumstances that brought you here

Undress yourself

Reclaim your weathered body without fear

Stand naked at your Nile

And hold your reflection dear

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