Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Xenophobia: our official-unofficial policy?

Xenophobia includes racism.
Photo Copyright Shafiq Morton
THE letter “x’’ doesn’t feature prominently in the English dictionary as the opening letter for a word. Mostly, the “x” precedes borrowed expressions, mainly from Greek. In this case the word “xenos” means “strange” or “foreign”. “Phobia”, as we all know, denotes fear.

Xenophobia is a “deep-rooted, irrational hatred towards foreigners” intones the Oxford Dictionary, whose definition I prefer over a wordier Webster. This is because my encounters with xenophobia tend to agree with the Oxford version, whose definition I would expand to embracing racism and Orientalism.

What the dictionaries can’t define, though, are the horrific outcomes – violent mob behaviour directed against those who have become figures of national resentment. Xenophobia, which targets migrant African minorities, is our great shame.

The picture of Mozambican national, Ernesto Nhamuave, clinging to life after being set alight by a mob in the Ramaphosa informal settlement during Gauteng’s xenophobic riots in 2008, is a harrowing image that has come to characterise the disturbing savagery of South African xenophobia.

Please note that I deliberately haven’t used the term “post-apartheid” to frame the discussion here; our historical human rights shortcomings did not become new ones after Madiba. Three centuries of colonialism and 46 years of apartheid are not the kind of things that disappear overnight because of a different rule book.

Culturally, we are the heirs of an entrenched, violent racial irrationality that has constantly hallmarked our turbulent history. For instance, how many of us know that the first recorded xenophobes were the early Cape settlers who used to hunt the San, or that the Adderley Street Slave Lodge was used as a whorehouse by the Dutch?

Gabiba Baderoon in her book Regarding Muslims explains that the obsession with the p-word on the Cape Flats is a direct result of black women being debased. The term “Maasbekers”, once referring to Mozambicans in our community, is as loaded as “makwerekwere”, the derogatory term for foreigners today.

Even in the stormy 1980’s, when thousands of Congolese and Mozambicans sought shelter in South Africa from regional conflict, some of our Bantustans – to which they were confined by the government – deigned not to accept them. So should it be a complete surprise that in the 1990’s foreigners would unfairly bear the brunt of socio-economic frustration?  

Due to our mining industry we have always been an economically migrant society. In the pecking order that governs being a newcomer, our recent migrants fleeing war, famine and poverty have always been the most vulnerable in the most insecure and most impoverished sectors of our society – a place where competition for scarce jobs and resources is at its most intense.

Let me provide an anecdotal example of why I would say the above. A few years ago I was teaching a journalism course at a local tertiary institution. When the topic of xenophobia came up in a discussion forum, things got very heated.           

Some students were adamant that the foreign migrants should go home. Foreign migrants took their jobs, sold drugs and unfairly occupied RDP houses. Other students argued that foreign migrants were hard-working, law-abiding and that the RDP houses had been sold to them by the very same locals who wanted them out.

As I sat watching these talented young minds let loose on each other, I began to observe a pattern emerging. It was a small class and I knew my students well.

Those who were the most “xenophobic” in debate usually came from township environments, whilst those who were more tolerant generally hailed more from the middle-class ones. It wasn’t scientific, but there was an observable trend.

It reminded me that apartheid’s group areas had been designed to confine people of colour to the outskirts of cities. The poorer you were, the more you were pushed to the edges. With populations forcibly moved, they were suppressed by a psychology of state violence that, I feel, still festers angrily within our DNA.

I tried the same discussion on xenophobia with another class, and exactly the same thing happened. I tried it the following year, and again, exactly the same thing happened. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds always expressed the most antagonism towards foreign migrants.

Fascinated, I turned to a 2004 study on xenophobia by the SA Migratory Project that told me 21% of its respondents had felt that foreign migrants should be repatriated; 64% had felt there should be restrictions. It tied up with my findings number-wise, but I didn’t encounter too much about setting – for instance, foreign migrants are not traditionally targeted in economically stable areas.

Given apartheid’s stark geography, this lack of attention to socio-political ecology surprised me. I’m no expert, but wouldn’t the institutional memory of our privilege-divided landscape be the key to addressing the challenges of xenophobia?

When you’ve been down in the dumps for so long, and your hopes have been extinguished by decades of municipal neglect, unemployment and corruption, perceiving a newcomer to be ahead of you in the queue is going to fuel resentment – justified or not.

However, what struck me further was another statistic. It showed that 87% of law enforcement officials believed 10 years ago – without any proof – that foreign migrants were involved in crime. This explained the bureaucratic disdain that is the bane of every migrant’s life in South Africa. Xenophobia – I’m afraid to say – is our official, if not unofficial, policy.

Comparisons are unmistakably odious, but it does remind me of a mentality during apartheid that a black man walking through a white area was always regarded as a potential burglar.  Even the dogs were xenophobic, and picking up their master’s vibes, would snap and snarl at any person of colour.

Of course, in trying to understand xenophobia we are certainly not condoning the rank lawlessness and ugly victimisation occurring across the country. But surely the time is ripe for our leaders, who appear to pay little more than lip service to the rights of foreign migrants, to rid themselves of the subliminal xenophobe that still lingers within us?