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Africa

Opinion: 'Xenophobia has never left us' in South Africa

Thousands of people have marched through Johannesburg protesting against South Africa's wave of xenophobic violence. South African Naomi Mackay says grassroots organization is need to combat base thuggery.

Pravin Gordhan, Minister of Coperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, told foreigners that he and the Johannesburg mayor, Parks Tau, met on Monday and that everything would be back to normal within a week.

And while I understand the importance of reassuring people, whose lives have been devastated by the violence, that they will be looked after, that they will be safe, I am still reeling from the past weeks' events so 'going back to normal' is not what I expect – with all due respect to Minister Gordhan whose work in the ANC government has always been highly respected.

After weeks of covering the turmoil, counting the dead and the injured and editors talking constantly to journalists on the scene in Durban and other hot spots, our newsroom has slowly turned to other stories that will start to take centre stage in the media. Xenophobia will move off the front pages and out of sight.

But the sad reality is that poor people living in informal settlements and townships have once again borne the brunt of the violence. South Africans, like me, who live in the suburbs, have been shielded from the pain of the poor, the violence they endure.

The lack of political leadership particularly in the townships has brought us here. Xenophobia is deeply ingrained in this society, but so is tribalism and racism. We need strong leadership now.

The government I voted for has let us down. I find it shameful that it took the government three weeks into the attacks to finally pull Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini into line. But what is even more shameful is the defense that has been mounted to clear Zwelithini's name. One of my colleagues who is Zimbabwean and who speaks and understands 'deep' Zulu, interpreted a part of his speech thus: "We have lice in our heads and we must remove those lice and put them in the sun to die. The foreigners must pack up and leave."

The Nazis, the apartheid state and countless other regimes, dehumanized their targets before committing some of the worst atrocities against humankind in world history. And we are expected to stand by and accept Zwelithini's excuses perhaps because we fear an unfettered king with untold powers. "If I had declared war in this country, this country would have been in ashes," he said earlier this week. This from a king, who according to political analyst Max du Preez, enjoys the support of only two out of ten South Africans.

Naomi Mackay is Assistant Editor at South Africa's The New Age

Naomi Mackay is Assistant Editor at South Africa's "The New Age"

I come from the Eastern Cape and as a political activist during apartheid, tribalism was a no-no. We viewed the role that chiefs played in the Bantustans [Editor's note: Bantustans were territories set aside for black inhabitants of South Africa and South West Africa (now Namibia) by the apartheid regime] as reactionary, as counter-revolutionary since many of them colluded with the apartheid state. I find it difficult to accept that in a democracy the chiefs and other traditional leaders have acquired a status beyond the new roles they are meant to perform – as mediators, councilors, not rulers of tribes. Post-apartheid tribalism has become more entrenched. And I will not subscribe to tribalism, which is reactionary and in which xenophobia in the history of this country finds its roots. It is also the root of the anger I feel at the xenophobic attacks today and post-1994.

Many South Africans across all sectors of the society neither welcome nor understand the benefits of immigrants for the country and the economy. Some of my colleagues shocked me over the past few weeks when they said foreigners should go home and give South Africans a chance to sort out their problems. And they deny that this is xenophobia.

Xenophobia has never left us. Without a proper political plan of action, it will erupt sporadically to haunt poor communities again and again. It is time to sit up and listen, and then respond appropriately to the cries of people who have no jobs, no future, no decent housing; whose children are prey to drugs and to prostitution, and who can't see the wood for the trees. Base thuggery is condoned by people who perceive their poverty as the fault of foreigners who are taking their jobs and services, who are circumventing the law.

Grassroots organization was the backbone of the liberation movement during the anti-apartheid struggle and it is still the most effective way of organizing people to combat xenophobia and other prejudices, if only our leaders from branch to national levels would take up the cudgels. Until then we will have to bank on the civic organizations to take forward the struggle. And going forward, the message that should emerge is that everyone who lives in this country has the right to live in peace and security. We would also do better to promote our commonalities as people living in this country, rather than be tolerated for our diversity – clinging to tribal differences will not help us build the unity we desperately need now.

So everything cannot go back to normal, or we will have failed the revolution once more.

Naomi Mackay is Assistant Editor at the South African daily "The New Age."

The opinions she expresses here are her own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of her employers.