Opinion pieces

Speaking out against xenophobic attacks

To whom it may concern

I’ve read (as could not bring myself to watch) some of the horrific stories of xenophobic attacks emerging from Kwa-Zulu Natal.  It brings back memories of the terror of the ANC-IFP/State War in the province in the late eighties and early nineties where communities were divided and labelled and ghastly violence was unleashed.  About ten years ago I was asked to present a paper at a national Women’s Day event on the lower south coast of KZN and I remember asking the question as to whether the social and economic conditions within the region had changed to the extent required to prevent a repeat of such violence.  I used the example of a young rural woman and reflected on whether her experience in the late eighties would be any different from that in the early 2000’s.  My conclusion was that, besides some positive political change, the conditions that fed the political violence – such as poverty, marginalisation, unemployment and social fragmentation -remained.  A spark could ignite a repeat.

The current target is the foreigner.  Provincial leaders realise that an external threat galvanises temporary unity and support.  Internal dissension and dissatisfaction is concealed as populist leaders stir anger and hatred against the other.    People die hideous deaths.  My son is half-foreigner, I cannot be silent.

After the toppling of the Berlin Wall I was part of a South African delegation to Germany to learn about processes of re-unification.  I still smile at a label awarded to me by the German media – “a white, third world woman”.  One of the profoundest insights I received was a graffiti slogan spray-painted on a city wall addressing increasing incidents of xenophobia in that country, translated, “Everyone is a Foreigner almost Everywhere”.  I step outside South African borders and I become a foreigner.  This has humbled me and made me acutely aware of notions of insider/outsider within communities.

Given the extent of xenophobia in South Africa, the decision for many a non-South-African African to settle in our country must be driven from a place of desperation and survival.   Many are survivors of genocide, religious and political conflicts, gender-based violence and economic stagnation.  I have worked in numerous communities in South Africa – both urban and rural – where many foreigners become visible based on their tenacity, humility, simplicity and entrepreneurial spirit.

One particular experience I had was with a small foreign business community in a rural Mpumalanga town.  Some of the local business people were antagonistic to these foreigners given their ability to afford rental for small, formal business spaces in the local community mall.  A key factor driving the antagonism was that the vast majority of small local businesses operated within extremely localised markets.  All businesssupplies, services and clients were sourced within restricted radii – limited to local villages and/or the nearest town centre.  Many of the local businesses offered the same products and hence competition was rife.

As economic development facilitators in the municipality, we approached the foreign-owned businesses and were overwhelmed by their willingness to share their business knowledge and networks with their local counterparts.  Our approach was to emphasise the opportunities presented to local businesses through having examples of small business successes in their midst.   Part of the learning from the foreign-owned businesses was the use of networks that extended far over local boundaries, such as bulk sourcing from the “China City” in the closest metropole, raising financial capital from external relatives and friends, and using pricing structures informed by competition in a far wider region.

The lack of leadership accountability for xenophobic utterances together with restrained responses to such utterances must not continue.  The use of hate and divisive speech to win political battles must end.  We need leaders who promote tolerance and respect and who encourage appreciation for the knowledge and skills that “the other” can bring.  We need educated communities that experience and understand that their village or town is simply one piece of a much larger, inter-related world and that we are all global citizens who can contribute and share.  Indeed, foreigners in South Africa can become valued partners in tackling our ongoing challenges of poverty, marginalisation, unemployment and social fragmentation.



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