Business Day, 24 May 2008

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Cape Town, as I write, has only just begun to experience the xenophobic rampages that have occurred in Gauteng. But the signs were clear. There’s been a rising drumbeat of xenophobia here for many months — largely ignored by authorities. The shameful way in which blacks from other parts of Africa are habitually treated in Cape Town by police and home affairs has been well documented. They are regularly persecuted and beaten by police: the very people we expect to quell such viciousness. There will be much analysis and wailing in the coming weeks as to the causes of this violence, but one explanation, which should be at the fore, is a dire lack of leadership. Last year, after an estimated 60 Somalis, mostly shopkeepers, had been killed within two months in Western Cape, African National Congress (ANC) Western Cape chairman James Ngculu snapped, “When a British tourist is attacked, do you call it xenophobic?” Denial of reality will always come back to haunt you. Or, in our case, Cape Town. Neither the Democratic Alliance (DA) nor the ANC seems able to get to grips with the ethnic complexity of this city. In the case of the ANC, I’ve suggested before that part of this failure is their inability to include the story of slavery, plus the dispossession and decimation of the San and Khoi, into their own heroic narrative of black liberation. In July Premier Ebrahim Rasool will face a harsh challenge at the ANC provincial conference from a more assertive, nationalist and Africanist faction. The problem, though, as demonstrated clearly by our previous race-based regime, is that it’s almost axiomatic that nationalism tends to move on to all other forms of exclusion: start with chauvinism and you’ll probably end up, as right now, with rabid xenophobia. This intolerance frequently erupts over access to resources in poor communities. In recent months the housing crisis in Cape Town has led to severe stress between black and coloured communities, with outbreaks of overt hostility and racism. As the DA and ANC jockey bitterly for power in the city and province, this tension is likely to increase. Xenophobia is everywhere. In the UK, the racist British National Party won more than 100 seats in recent local elections. In Italy, the virulently xenophobic Northern League is in a new right-wing coalition containing neofascists. Their bigoted leader thundered that immigrants must be hunted out and, if necessary, that his followers will “take up arms”. A colleague from Italy told me this week he’s worried for the safety of his son, an Italian. One of his friends was recently beaten by fascists. My friend’s son wears jeans and has long hair. That’s the point of intolerance: it always needs more to feed its hatred. In Cape Town you hear prejudice from all sides; it’s in some of the almost gloating letters to newspapers from whites, expressing horror at such bigotry, as if they’d never heard of apartheid. “I won’t employ South African blacks,” a white professional told me the other day. “I’ll only employ Malawians.” In a small township last week a Xhosa-speaker told me they’d overheard a group of coloured youths planning to ransack a Somalian shop. This was probably purely criminal as these youths are known housebreakers. But they’re playing with fire. In that township some of the Xhosa men are talking of forming a patrol group to keep “these people” under control. They mean the coloured youths. It’s a vicious circle. First it’s others: then you.