IN SA, XENOPHOBIA AND RACISM RUN RIOT

Post, 23 April 2008

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South Africa, proudly declared itself the Rainbow Nation and endorsed a world-renowned Constitution that declared triumphantly "that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity". The terrible irony is that the very victims of apartheid, oppressed and marginalised because of their skin colour and race, have now become the oppressors. This week, six Zimbabwean families in shacks in Diepsloot had their shacks looted and burnt to the ground because locals accused them of being criminals. Xenophobia can be defined as the "attitudes, prejudices and behaviour that reject, exclude and often vilify persons, based on the perception that they are outsiders or foreigners to the community, society or national identity". Xenophobia and racism have many similarities and do overlap in instances. Racism is prejudice based on physical characteristic differences, such as skin colour, hair type and facial features, whereas xenophobia implies negative behaviour founded on the notion that the other person/persons are foreign to and/or the community or nation. In Europe, it is far easier to distinguish between racism and xenophobia since both legal and illegal immigrants tend to be of different physical characteristics than the native population. In modern societies, especially with globalisation, and mass emigration due to war and economic impoverishment, we are seeing more xenophobia rather than racism. The Zimbabwean crisis has led to an influx of Zimbabweans to South Africa; some say as many as three million have crossed the borders illegally. In South Africa, immigrants from Somalia, Zimbabwe, and central Africa, are targets of xenophobic reaction because they are considered as competitors for jobs and public services. In a country where unemployment figures are extremely high and where the majority of its population struggle to make ends meet, an influx of "aliens" leads to heightened competition for the few resources that exist. It creates the social and political climate that incites and inflames xenophobia and racism. South Africans believe that their already constrained circumstances are being worsened because illegal immigrants are more likely to work for less and are competing or using social utilities meant for tax paying South Africans. In the process, a growing nationalism demands that the South African government cater for the needs of South Africans and prevent foreigners from benefiting at the expense of locals. As a developing economy, the priority for government is to deliver necessities like primary health care, housing and jobs. Issues begin to conflate when millions of South Africans are still waiting after 14 years of democracy. They continue to live on the margins of the economy and the fruits of democracy are yet to be enjoyed. Is it no wonder that impoverished townships and informal settlements are the main breeding grounds for xenophobic violence or racism since it is these communities who are in direct competition for social services and the like? The severe economic inequalities, crowding, unemployment, and continued marginalisation of the poor lead to tensions that culminate in sporadic bouts of violence against "foreigners". Within this simmering atmosphere, those perceived to be outsiders or foreigners, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and non-South Africans become sitting ducks, the proverbial scapegoats. We are exhibiting a worldwide pattern of oppression. In a globalised world, whose political and social agenda is set and driven by Western capitalists, intolerance has never been so overt. Islam and Muslims are the current target for a host of reasons presided over by the United States' need to control the world's energy sources in the Middle East. Garbed in the disguise of bringing democracy to dictatorships, and an unabashed ideology that is based on what is seen as the inherently superior values of the West, Muslims are seen as problematic, fundamentalist, reactionary. Using the fear of terrorist attacks, this well-orchestrated campaign has simplistically divided the world between the "civilised" (Christian) and the "terrorists" (Muslims). The invasion of Iraq is reminiscent of the Crusades, bringing religion to the heathens. In Africa, political dictators have stoked ethnic tensions to maintain their positions of power, unleashing violence that has resulted in genocide and ongoing civil warfare. Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, the Congo, Kenya, sites of xenophobic violence that have laid waste to these countries, leaving poverty, death and despair in its wake. While it is easy to understand why locals target foreigners, it does not make it right and our government seems incapable of implementing measures to resolve these tensions through community dialogues and other interventions. However, I suppose when we have a President who does not think that the Zimbabwean election debacle is a crisis, it is easy to understand why no concrete action has been taken to protect foreigners and create vehicles that allow these divergent groups to communicate and understand each other better. A little facilitation to find common ground, to allow South Africans and immigrants to speak about their shared troubles, would go a long way towards alleviating these tensions.