On 14 April 2015, Minister of Police Nathi Nhleko addressed journalists on the recent spate of attacks on foreign nationals; defining these attacks – which started in Durban – as afrophobia rather than xenophobia.
“What you don’t see is you don’t see Australians being chased on the streets, Britons being chased on the streets and similar demands being placed on them that they should be leave the country and so on”
“What you effectively see is largely Africans against one another in a sense now. It represents a certain type of political problem that has got to be dealt with by ourselves as South Africans on the one hand.”
“In a sense, what we are witnessing are actually Afrophobic kind of activities and attacks…and resembling all elements of self-hate for an example among Africans and so forth,” said Nhleko.
Fair enough, minister Nhleko. But giving these acts a different name is doing about as much as tweeting #NoToXenophobia – it’s not actually doing enough. It doesn’t save the lives of foreign nationals. What Nhleko’s redefinition has done is simply spark yet another debate, which can be distracting, and moves dialogue away from the core of the issue to intellectual debates.
What’s worse, Nhleko’s statement missed some important observations. The majority of white foreign nationals do not live amongst the marginalised communities that are likely to engage in violent protest of any kind, for instance. The areas that have been plagued by attacks are primarily townships. Townships remain home to socio-economically excluded non-whites, a legacy of apartheid that persists today. They are also places that are traditionally home to the working class, asylum seeking immigrants and start-ups all looking for that pot of gold in a swirl of poverty, crime and unemployment.
How can you wonder why typically sub-Saharan Africans are the only targets of xenophobic attacks when history has long favoured the white men and women of the world? Why would it be different in this scenario? In a society like South Africa, which was segregated on the basis of race, race and class remain correlated. Most of the European foreign nationals that he mentions do not live alongside the most marginalised groups of society.
Most of the European foreign nationals he mentions live in the suburbs of Cape Town, Sandton and Ballito. They do not live amongst black South Africans that are angered and failed by a system of government that keeps them in the townships, unemployed and dependant on the state. They do not live amongst the people that are tired of empty promises and whose demands fall on deaf ears suggesting that their voices don’t matter. It is unfortunate and disturbing that foreign nationals are bearing the brunt of the people’s anger and frustration.
In no way do I condone the violence towards foreign nationals. But as Dr Zwelethu Jolobe (politics department, UCT) suggests, if the individuals we chose to serve the South African people continue to work in service of political agendas, diplomacy and a desire to maintain the illusion that all is well in the Rainbow Nation, innocent lives will continue to be lost.
Minister Nhleko, as an elected representative, your words matter. Your words along with the words of Jacob Zuma’s son, Edward Zuma, and King Goodwill Zwelithini are seen and heard across the country. But where is your action? And who will take responsibility for the conditions in the country that permeate violence? The problem we are dealing with involves the exclusion and marginalisation of millions of people in our country. Let us call a spade a spade so that we can move beyond intellectual debates and condemnations, and act to end the merciless killing of fellow Africans.
African nationals are uniquely vulnerable to the frustrations of local communities because of their proximity to them. It is not afrophobia, minister Nhleko – it is the continued and systematic failure of our government to answer the demands and frustrations of the people.
Words by @ThatGirlFati