When we arrive at the Bannister Hotel in Braamfontein for the VIP Debate Club there’s already a buzz in the air. The turnout is impressive and we struggle to find a seat. It’s a little surprising. Not only are we all here to discuss the very sensitive subject of xenophobia, we’re also all here, after long and productive days, volunteering to use what’s left of our brain power afterhours. I guess it’s not all gloom and doom in this country. There is hope, even if it’s just in the confines of these four walls.
After VIP’s Lee Molefi briefly introduces the panelists, namely Jean-Pierre Lukamba (Vice-Chairman of African Diaspora Forum), Kay Selisho (Times Media journalist) and Nolwazi Tusini (senior content producer at Talk Radio 702), we start to tear into the very meaty monster that is xenophobia. Today’s theme asks the question “Am I Xenophobic?”First, we delve into defining xenophobia. Immediately, there’s a lot of disagreement. It’s apparent the dictionary term won’t do in the context of this discussion. Distinctions are drawn between xenophobia (latently holding xenophobic views), xenophobic attacks (acting on xenophobic views), afrophobia and criminal activity. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus regarding what we should call the recent incidences in South Africa. It’s in this confusion that Tusini offers an alternative, suggesting that when we think of a particular term to define the issue, we should ask who benefits from the conceptualisation of the issue in that particular way. She gives the example of how calling the attacks pure criminal activity benefit government and the police force in the sense that it means the police and army can, without question, publicly show a strong force of authority in operations such as Operation Fiela and the hostel raids. Even after this suggestion, there’s still a sense that the attacks in their entirety cannot be painted with the same brush.
When we move onto the representations of xenophobia and the face of xenophobia, a queue of audience members eager to engage in the debate starts to form. We’re not just talking about the panga-wielding Zulu man we tend to see in national media anymore. Now we’re talking about different representations of xenophobia such as the people that refer to foreign nationals as “they”, the hospitals and schools that refuse to provide services to foreigners, and the person that supports a restaurant that employs foreigners as waitrons but does not pay them a living wage. It strikes a chord. It’s not very often that we think of this kind of the xenophobia – the kind that permeates society as a whole and happens everyday. This conversation begins to highlight how we generally don’t realise that fearing a person with a Nigerian accent because we assume they are a drug-dealer or a thug is as much of an act of xenophobia as uttering “they must go” is.
Tusini then boldly declares that “South Africans are xenophobes”. Another uncomfortable moment. I nod my head in agreement but my colleague sitting next to me seems resistant to accept this statement as true. For many in the audience, this generalisation seems unfair and inaccurate. It’s this comment that speaks right to the crux of the debate, which interrogates how we understand xenophobia and how our understanding affects how we see ourselves.
Before the debate began we received surveys that asked us two questions, pre- and post-debate: Do you think South African young people are (mildly/wildly) xenophobic? Do you think you’re xenophobic? I walked into the Bannister Hotel knowing that I definitely was xenophobic. When conversations about the state of Hillbrow come up I still make reference to the large Nigerian community living there as if they are somehow responsible for the decay in Hillbrow. I generally approach Indian people with a sense of distrust, assuming they will rip me off in some way and I am fearful of people that sound like they’re Russian because I think they must be involved with the mafia. It’s not ideal and it’s not something to be proud of, but it’s the truth.
What I’m not so certain about is the degree of my xenophobic attitudes. I can’t imagine that I would ever go as far as physically harming someone. But to be fair, my livelihood is not directly and blatantly threatened by the presence of a foreigner and I currently don’t have any reason to perceive it as such. Given the unlikeliness of this hypothetical situation becoming a reality, I find it hard to establish my degree of xenophobia. Am I mildly or wildly xenophobic? What’s more, does it really matter? Aren’t xenophobic attitudes always problematic regardless of what behaviours they ultimately inform? The fact is, fearing or showing a strong dislike towards an individual based on their nationality amounts to prejudice, which is often inaccurate and often translates to the unfair treatment of that individual. As a South African that understands the injustices of apartheid, which was prejudicial and discriminatory on the basis of race, I am ashamed I can hold similar separatist views. Whether I have physically harmed anyone based on my xenophobic views is immaterial. The fact is, I do hold these views. Perhaps acknowledgement really is the first step.
Words by @ThatGirlFati
Photography by @PrettiPiktures