Columns Daily Maverick

Don’t touch us on our xenophobia

Daily Maverick, 16 March 2012 – 

On Thursday President Jacob Zuma’s special envoy to Nigeria, minister of correctional services, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, deployed to further communicate South Africa’s regret, had to fend off allegations of a South African state bias against Nigeria. She also conveyed some bad news to the Nigerians – South Africa would not compensate the Nigerian deportees for their ordeal.

“The issue of compensation is out of the question. We don’t understand why South Africa will have to compensate the deportees,” she said. “We believe that it is enough that we have come out and apologised. It is enough that we have demonstrated our goodwill to the government of Nigeria. It is enough that the President has sent a special envoy to reiterate his commitment to the bilateral relationship with Nigeria.”

South Africans were justifiably embarrassed by government’s grovelling. Deputy minister of international relations and cooperation Ebrahim Ebrahim cut a rather desperate figure when he reiterated South Africa’s apology to Nigeria at a media briefing. Like a jilted lover begging for another chance, South Africa seemed all too ready to bow and scrape before Nigeria. Aubrey Masango, writing here onDaily Maverick echoed the sentiments of many South Africans when he expressed his disgust at the manner in which Ebrahim had apologised. Friends at Dirco have taken particular exception to Masango’s assertion that their department “is run by a bunch of ‘unevolved’ primates”.

And with good reason too. The more primal reaction to continuing expressions of Nigerian aggression towards South Africa would be to shun the West Africans with haughty indifference. And while Justice Malala writing in The Times on Tuesday – doubtlessly also affected by the severe bout of Mbeki nostalgia going around the country – believed the entire fracas to be a sign of the immaturity of our leaders: neither Goodluck Johnathan nor Jacob Zuma match up to the diplomacy of Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo, South Africa’s apology does show some maturity. And the restraint that senior government officials displayed in the face of severe provocation from their Nigerian counterparts must also be commended.

Barney Mthombothi writing in The Financial Mail bristles with jingoistic fervour when he says, “Such a sycophantic apology is an affront to our honour”. Jingoistic fervour quite aside, we can ill afford to have Nigeria as an enemy. Mapisa-Nqakula’s exasperated response to the Nigerian media on Thursday may well signal the conclusion of South Africa’s expression of profound regret. Despite the apology and government’s best efforts to brush aside the whole sordid affair, many South Africans, outside of the hallowed corridors of government, fail to realise the severity of Nigeria’s anger.

Last Saturday, the Nigerian minister of foreign affairs, Olugbenga Ashiru, told Channels TV, “I will… ensure that any country that maltreats Nigerians will be hit back.” This was two days after the South African apology, two days after South Africa and Nigeria had purportedly committed to strengthening their bilateral relations. This was a very angry man. He went on to accuse South Africa of rampant “xenophobia”, saying South Africans are themselves aware of their xenophobic tendencies.

Don’t touch us there, sir.

Yes, this is South Africa – land of beguiling beauty and abode of blinding antagonism towards foreign nationals. They are the “makwerekwere”, cloistered in the margins of formal society where they compete with the poorest South Africans to eke out a menial living. And yet this antagonism towards foreign nationals is not restricted to the so-called xenophobic hotspots where localised competition for political and economic power is a trigger for violence. The rest of us may not be setting suspected Zimbabweans alight a la Diepsloot, but we fail to understand the anger of the Nigerians because we fail to confront our own suspicion of foreigners, particularly of African foreigners.

Last month, Western Cape provincial police commissioner Arno Lamoer bemoaned the number of foreign nationals arriving in Cape Town. He was, of course, not referring to the American backpackers paying their way through Cape Town by waiting tables at Cape Town’s more swanky spots. His was a diatribe, neatly presented in Microsoft Powerpoint, against the rising numbers of African migrants in Western Cape. “If you see the influence of foreign nationals in Western Cape, you will be shocked,” Lamoer told MPs, proceeding to invite them to take a trip with him to the Bellville railway station. “You will see what it looks like there with foreign nationals – and it’s only Somalians(sic) we have in that [Bellville] area.”

Alive to the lure of the bucks to be made in Africa’s rising, there has been great emphasis on the mobility of goods, capital and communication in Africa. While we have failed so far to offer the same attention to better facilitating the movement of people, especially migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers throughout the continent, there is also a need, in South Africa particularly, to address the suspicions of African migrants.

We suffer from a crippling sense of political panic that has been seeded by the belief that the socioeconomic burden created by the influx of African migrants is unsustainable. We have come to perceive foreigners, especially black foreigners, as a direct threat to our future economic health. It’s not just Western Cape where foreigners are blamed for violent crime. It’s become South African common sense, an ideology, to hold foreigners responsible for the surge in violent crime in South Africa. And even as we take advantage of the Malian tailors on Long Street, we bemoan the arrival of yet more immigrants.

The most recent amendments to the Immigrations Act, in March 2011, prohibit the use of immigration agents and quota work permits, both of which have historically been widely used by South African companies seeking to employ foreign highly skilled workers. It has become exceedingly difficult for a foreigner, even skilled foreign workers, to find work locally. All this while the country is said to be stymied from a severe shortfall of skilled workers.

We’re afraid foreigners may take up the jobs meant for South Africans, but this sense of competition for scarce resources against millions of illegal immigrants has become the motivation for stricter control of illegal immigrants.

Lest we forget, many South Africans are inadvertently caught up in this paranoia.

Passop, the Cape Town based NGO dedicated to fighting the cause of foreign migrants in South Africa, reports on the case of University of Western Cape student Jainudien Sablay. He was walking to a shop in Rylands earlier this week, accompanied by his father, when they were stopped by a member of the SAPS Special Task Force and home affairs’ immigration department. “When they asked for identification, he provided his student card and ID number, but they rejected it, calling him Pakistani,” Passop says. Jainudien’s father rushed home to retrieve another form of identification but in the meanwhile some 40 police officers and immigration officers are said to have physically and verbally intimidated Jainudien, before violently throwing him into the back of a police van. The irony: the Sablay family trace their roots in Cape Town back to the 1800s. “If this could happen to him, it could happen to anyone,” Passop says.

There may well be a good many Nigerians with similar stories to share. The dictionary defines “xenophobia” as a “hatred or fear of foreigners”. But in South Africa we understand it as a “dislike of foreigners”. It is the default position too many of us assume, a negative attitude towards foreigners, a dislike, a fear, a hatred. It is a sense of intense tension directed at foreigners. Too often we fail to interrogate the consequences of this attitude. When a police chief says, “An estimated 8,000 a month are flowing into the province,” he communicates the impression of an uncontrollable, unstoppable process. He invokes the imagery of an unrelenting wave that renders South Africans powerless. And yet it is the foreigners among us who must negotiate their way through our national neurosis. The Nigerian foreign minister lived in South Africa as a foreigner. He speaks from experience. DM

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