BuaNews, 29 May 2008

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In recent weeks, more than 50 people have been killed, scores injured, thousands have been displaced and are living in tents, and thousands have been caught in the middle of brutal attacks on residents in communities particularly across Gauteng. Some of those killed are South Africans, many of those injured and left homeless seeking shelter in police stations are South Africans but the overwhelming majority are our brothers and sisters from neighbouring states seeking a better life in our country. These systematic xenophobic attacks have also created the space for criminal elements to enter the fray and cause greater mayhem. But before unpacking what xenophobia actually means let us be very clear, these are dastardly acts of violence by cowards who do all of us and our country a serious injustice. In these difficult times let us be ever mindful of that simple yet profound Xhosa saying "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabanye bantu" - People are people because of other people. We need to understand that xenophobia has historically been used by right-wing populist movements to mobilise particularly the lumpen-proletariat against minority groups in society. Political mobilisation on the basis of xenophobia poses grave threats to progressive forces in our society and to our democracy. Right wing elements seeking to undermine democracy and the gains of democracy invariably use forms of chauvinism to target and marginalise minority groups in society. These groups become the targets of intimidation and violence; they become scapegoats for other political agendas. Political mobilisation on the basis of xenophobia, regressive notions of chauvinism and narrow nationalism which seeks to create an "us" and "them" situation with the so called "them" - the foreigners, the undocumented workers - being responsible for "stealing" jobs and houses and services is extremely dangerous. The dehumanisation of the "other" leads to a situation where fear of the other can easily be manipulated and can spill over into gratuitous violence against the other because the ties that bind humans to each other are severed. As a country we would not be here today were it not for the tremendous sacrifices made by our brothers and sisters in the front line states. They treated all of us in exile with the utmost respect and dignity. Even in the face of cross border raids and threats of invasion by the apartheid regime, our brothers and sisters in the front line states provided us with food, clothing and shelter. They made huge sacrifices to ensure that we in South Africa were liberated from apartheid and colonialism. We must as President Mbeki said "... recognise and fully appreciate that we are bound together with other Africans by history, culture, economics and, above all, by destiny. South Africa is not and will never be an island separate from the rest of the continent. We dare not loose sight of the fundamental reality of our interdependence as the people of Africa". This is the spirit of "Ubuntu" of "humanity towards others" and of a "belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. In a liberated South Africa where we cherish the values of pluralism and diversity, chauvinism and xenophobia and acts of violence must be condemned and must be dealt with swiftly and within the confines of the law. We can agree with Harold Wilson who in 1965 said "The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who are neutral in a moral crisis". As a government and a society we remain neither silent nor neutral in the face of xenophobia and the related acts of violence against our fellow African brothers and sisters. These are not simply law and order issues they cut to the heart of social cohesion in a country committed to non-racism, non-sexism, equality and social justice. Xenophobia comes from the Greek words (xenos), meaning "foreigner," "stranger," and (phobos), meaning "fear." It refers to fear of foreigners or of people significantly different from oneself. As a sociological term, xenophobia is somewhat clinical and it obscures the destruction of property and physical and psychological violence against other human beings. The terms "xenophobia" and "racism" seem to be used interchangeably, even though they have different meanings. Xenophobia is not the same as racism and ethno-centrism. The United Nations defines racial discrimination as meaning " ...any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life. (United Nations, International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, 1965, Article 1). Ethnocentrism involves the tendency on the part of individuals and groups to judge and evaluate others from the vantage point of their own set of norms, values and cultural traditions. Ethnocentrism leads to a hierarchy in which people of different cultures are ranked according to how much or how little of the dominant norms, values and cultural traditions they possess. Xenophobia fosters breeds and encourages contempt for the "other", and as with all other phobias the person is conscious of their phobia - in this case their fear of the other who is seen as standing apart from them and from society. The Intergovernmental Working Group on the effective implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, of The World Conference on Racism, Xenophobia and related intolerances correctly noted that "poverty, underdevelopment, marginalization, social exclusion and economic disparities are closely associated with racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and contribute to the persistence of racist attitudes and practices which in turn generate more poverty". The Working Group encourages States to take this close correlation into consideration when they plan development policies. We can also understand that in today's world globalisation has had profoundly detrimental effects on the economies and the societies of most developing countries. The negative effects of globalisation aggravate inter alia, poverty, underdevelopment, marginalisation, social exclusion, cultural homogenisation, and economic disparities within and between states. This means that undocumented workers, as well as refugees and economic migrants will naturally gravitate to safer countries offering a better life. It is only through broad and sustained efforts to create a shared future based on common humanity and respect for diversity that we can effectively deal with the scourge of xenophobia. There is a strong argument to be made that xenophobic acts of violence fall into the category of hate crimes - where perpetrators target victims because of their membership in a certain social group, usually defined by race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, nationality, age, gender, gender identity, or political affiliation. These crimes take many forms including violence, physical assault, intimidation and harassment, and damage to property and harm to persons. Xenophobia does incredible harm to the safety and well being of all the citizenry. It certainly inflicts incalculable physical and psychological damage on the individual and on groups of individuals who are the targets of xenophobic violence. Entire communities have been disrupted and the bonds of civility and humanity that bind members of a community together are almost irretrievably severed. Social cohesion is eroded and the social fabric of the community is torn. But xenophobia also affects the psyche of a nation and does immense harm to public order and individual and community safety. When xenophobia calls into question the very core of a person's and a community's identity and violence ensues, the resultant degradation and dehumanization is especially severe, and trauma is inevitable. When xenophobic acts of violence occur we cannot be said to be a nation in true dialogue. Xenophobia certainly dehumanizes both victims and perpetrators; one is empowered and emboldened while the other is disempowered and abused. However, the possibility of escalating cycles of violence and retaliation is ever present. And we have already begun to see victims beginning to organise themselves for common protection. Immigrants, asylum seekers, workers on work permits, people with temporary protected status, and undocumented workers come to our country to escape political persecution and many come seeking better economic opportunities. They do not take jobs away from South Africans; they contribute to the economy of South Africa, they work and they consume goods and services. All these non-citizens and even undocumented workers are accorded rights and protections under our Constitution which grants rights to "people" or "persons" not only to citizens. This includes the right to equal protection of the law, freedom of speech and assembly, freedom arbitrary detention or cruel and unusual punishment. Let us also reiterate that undocumented workers are not, by law entitled to RDP houses. However, all migrants living with HIV and AIDS regardless of their legal status are entitled to antiretroviral treatment. Government is also mandated to provide services to unaccompanied minors regardless of their status. Let us remain mindful of the words of German anti-Nazi activist, Pastor Martin Niem"ller who in 1945 at the end of the Second World War in atonement and the acceptance of collective guilt wrote: In Germany they first came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me - and by that time no one was left to speak up. Our government has established an intergovernmental task team to look into the root causes of xenophobia and its violent expression in our country. It behoves us to ask a number of very important questions in our effort to understand what is happening and to develop coherent and lasting solutions to the challenges posed by xenophobia - including: 1) Why have formerly peaceful communities erupted in this fashion? 2) Who is behind the co-ordination of the attacks? 3) How have they spread across so many different geographical communities in such a short period? 4) Are there hidden hands behind these protests? 5) If the attacks are linked to issues of employment, housing and service delivery why have they taken such a violent form? Surely in a democracy like ours responsible protests about service delivery, employment and corruption need to take peaceful forms; 6) How can we prevent this from happening in the future; 7) What public education campaign needs to be undertaken to increase awareness of our unity in diversity? The intergovernmental task team has already met to consider these and other questions and to develop a coherent, systematic and clear way forward. Teams are already on the ground providing humanitarian assistance to people who have been injured and displaced from their homes. All three spheres of government are committed to working cooperatively to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice (to date over 400 suspects have been arrested) that law and order is restored and that process of community healing and building community cohesion begin. Xenophobia and xenophobic acts of violence and destruction have no place in a democratic South Africa. We all extend our sympathies and condolences to the families of those who have been injured and killed in these dastardly acts.