Beginning in March 2019, South Africa had been unhinged by particularly intense spates of violence against foreign nationals. The unrests started with protracted service delivery protests targeting migrants in the congested Johannesburg township of Alexandra. Locals complained bitterly about the burgeoning influx of foreign nationals erecting makeshift shacks on scarce land further compounding an already volatile situation. Locals then took action by demolishing the shacks of those perceived to be foreigners.
During the sordid affair, the plight and voices of foreign nationals went unheard. Their voices were simply absent in the mainstream media as if they somehow did not exist. In addition, there was the usual demonization of the ‘outsider’ in local lore. Secondly, foreign nationals suffered severe violence both physically and materially. And finally, these acts of violence went largely unreported by major media—at least initially.
Soon after South African truck drivers following loud complaints that foreign truck drivers were ‘stealing their jobs’ embarked on an orgy of destruction that saw them burning numerous trucks mainly in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga. Once again, the actual victims of these acts of destruction were largely missing in media reports. Thus, the victims of Alexandra 2019, the disenfranchised of the wide South African highway and finally the dispossessed foreign nationals living in the burning spots of Gauteng were largely ignored.
Towards the end of August and the following month, there were systematic attacks on foreign-owned shops and businesses that ruined lives in multiple ways. Automobile dealerships worth millions, mechanic workshops and numerous grocery stores and stalls were brazenly looted and then torched. The central business districts (CDB) of Pretoria and Johannesburg became major sites of pillage. Shortly after, criminal syndicates took advantage of the ensuing mayhem and began looting South African-owned enterprises as well.
And then previously silent government officials scrambled to find uncoordinated ways to explain away the anarchy. Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African president, after a perplexing spell of silence issued noncommittal condemnations of the violence on national television in the midst of the meeting of the World Economic Forum holding in Cape Town during which Nigeria, Malawi and Rwanda were absent.
Bheki Cele, the Police Minister vehemently refused to describe the persistent acts of violence as Afrophobia (fear of black people) or more popularly, xenophobia. Instead, he characterized them as acts of wanton criminality. Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, the Minister for Defense and head of the security cluster admitted that the government could not curb crime against foreign nationals and claimed that South Africans were a very ‘angry’ people. Thabo Mbeki, former South African president, staunchly refused to accept that South Africans were xenophobic.
As all these prevarications and denials were going on, a rash of femicides further pulverized the country. In 2019 alone, over 3,000 females were murdered mostly in the hands of their intimate partners. Uyinene Mrwetyana, a student of the University of Cape Town was raped and murdered by an employee of South African postal services. This particular crime caused a national outcry that all but diverted attention from the xenophobic plague ripping out the heart of the South African nation.
Analysts of violence and conflict resolution could not connect the dots between such high rates of femicide and xenophobic sociopathy. While femicide was unacceptable Afrophobic pathology was deemed more tolerable and, in some instances, even justifiable. These are the sort of conclusions that could be drawn from the public utterances of prominent South African figures. Those conclusions were even more likely in view of the uncontrollable rage rending apart the streets and townships of Gauteng. It seemed as if causalized xenophobia had become normalized.
There was an underlying assumption that xenophobia, femicide and the looting of South African-owned shops can and should be disaggregated. Hence the prevailing sentiment is that xenophobia was an isolated scourge created and fuelled by the presence of foreign nationals which would disappear once they were expelled from the country. And then it would be possible to re-imagine the ‘rainbow nation’ anew. Instructively, the churches were also surprisingly silent.
This brings us to the place of South Africa within the continent and its conflictual role in cementing African internal dynamics. One fact that distinguishes the African continent from the rest of the world is her matchless diversity. This diversity exists in terms of history, cultures, geography and peoples. It is this diversity that made her vulnerable to external invaders who enslaved and colonized her peoples. It also made it possible to create colonies of insiders and outsiders that preyed on each other. And then the colonizers instituted geographical boundaries in the most arbitrary fashion sundering ethnicities and entire communities in a decidedly self-serving manner.
Those artificial geographical constructs, now labelled countries were not meant to cater to collective African interests but to the whims of colonial overlords whose sole aim was to subjugate, exploit and plunder. And in that inimitably trusting fashion, Africans themselves accepted and sanctioned the ghastly blunders of history. There is simply the absence of political will to re-visit, question and seek constructive redress for those gross historical errors. We are thus condemned to live with the dire consequences of our political and ideological inaction culminating in the undermining of our inherent diversity, imaginative scope as well as our political and conceptual possibilities. We have been re-made into what we were never meant to be, divested of transformational ideological initiative while at the same time, we are left to regress into nameless barbarity such as was evident in the gory streets of Johannesburg and Pretoria.
In establishing those misshapen colonial geographical entities called nations which most Africans themselves accept without so much as a pinch of salt, we have in turn become our worst enemies, creating obstacles, barriers and distances amongst each other without possessing the mental fortitude to stand back and reflect on the utter preposterousness of our situation, the sheer tragic-comic proportions of its self-defeating momentum and the very illogicality of its logic. We have become lost and self-nullifying characters in a Byzantine African maze while our detractors plunder the magnificence of their colonial creations.
Within the midst of this existential quagmire, we might ask, what is the meaning of an African identity in the light of the recent xenophobic violence in South Africa? Currently, it is certainly not what it had been in precolonial times. Presently, it is often counter-intuitive, truncated, divisive and selfish. On account of the events in South Africa, it would appear that Africa has a bleak future, a future in which the enemy within seems considerably more potent than that from without. In what appears to be her death throes, Africa is akin to a poisonous serpent rabidly devouring itself beginning from its tail.
With this kind of bleak future in mind, Africa’s unparalleled diversity is completely turned against itself. Its innate demotic mobility, its seemingly aberrant territorial migrancy denounced as being obsolete and opposed to the norms of modernity and development.
The Fulani, considered the largest nomadic ethnicity in the world reside largely in West Africa but can be found in small numbers in central and East Africa having traversed the continent herding cattle for centuries. They can thus be found in no less than fifteen countries and so have been somewhat balkanized and dismembered as have so many other African ethnicities. In addition, their age-long ways of life and traditions have been disrupted by the rude colonial encounter and its myriad alien measures.
However, so far, the Fulani have managed to devise ways of resistance. Perceived as anachronistic by mentally enslaved colonial subjects, they have managed to hold on to many of their cultural practices and existential preferences. It is very likely they would have found it much more difficult to accomplish this in Southern Africa. The Khoi-San of Southern Africa constantly decry the political and cultural erasure to which they are being subjected. Their dialects are fast disappearing, their ways of existence being submerged in the sands of time and modernity and they are being compelled to assume identities they had very little inputs in forming.
Julius Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters party (EFF) offered the strongest condemnation of xenophobic violence. He pointed out that if allowed to pass, the northern ethnicities in the province of Limpopo would become the next targets. Admittedly, this is a rather powerful insight.
A society is usually judged from the way it treats its most vulnerable people. Somalis, Ethiopians, Zimbabweans and Congolese fleeing all sorts of hardships in their respective countries end up in an unwelcoming South Africa. Their meagre belongings and business ventures are razed, they are chased and hunted down like dogs and survivors are reduced to hapless, stateless beings. It is difficult to imagine Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki could have hatched such monstrous nightmares. But their grandchildren, produced from the very womb of liberty have spawned baleful specters of pillage, mayhem and inhumanity. And paradoxically, within this infernal matrix of nationalist plunder, they hope to halt the widespread rape and murder of women and little children. In addition, they crave for the unlikely approval of their exemplary political forebears.
Historically, there were several African communities, especially in the Western and Eastern regions that treated visitors as emissaries of deities. And so virtual strangers were welcomed into nurturing communities whole-heartedly. Guests would be offered spouses at night for warmth and comfort and this practice was common until the introduction of Christianity. This also made it possible for the bible along with the gun to decimate African communities on an unprecedented scale. But this perceived weakness was one of the most endearing traits of Africa, the burnishing of alterity as a foundational existential praxis, even when it could ultimately lead to annihilation.
Olusegun Obasanjo, the former Nigerian president stated four years ago that South Africa is a leading country in the continent. However, assuming that role entails a lot of responsibilities. It would obviously also involve opening up her economic doors to her African brethren, something it has been quite ambivalent about. Instead South Africa routinely criminalizes and demonizes black foreign nationals in order to exploit, maim, kill or expel them
On September 11, the first batch of about one hundred and fifty Nigerians was flown back home courtesy of Peace Airlines, a privately-owned Nigerian company. Even hard-pressed Zimbabweans fled in droves. In November, hundreds of refugees camped outside the premises of the United Nations (UN) offices in Pretoria and Cape Town seeking assistance to leave the country. Ugly clashes with the police soon occurred.
The inner-city precincts of Pretoria and Johannesburg have become derelict and forlorn due to the orgies of burning and looting. The disemboweled carcasses that locals might have hoped to usurp are in need of urgent and elaborate repair. It is clear that a vibrant and purposeful entrepreneurial spirit has deserted those blighted inner-cities. It also appears that much talent has been needlessly lost and wasted.
Policemen and women watched as South African citizens conducted acts of carnage and destruction against foreign nationals. These are the same police officers that often collide with drug dealers in distributing drugs. After acts of looting, immigration officials move in to sweep up undocumented immigrants with brazen force and victims are denied trauma counseling and other forms of assistance. However, some of these officials issue false identitification papers to desperate migrants on a steady basis.
There are both subtle and explicit ways to exclude and denigrate the foreign national. In earlier times, just after South African independence in 1994, the black foreigner was demonized as a vector of diseases, particularly HIV/AIDS. But it turns out that South African HIV infection rates were the highest in the continent. It also turns out that crime statistics, particularly against women and children outstrip those of any other African country apart from conflict-ridden or war-ravaged zones.
As government officials were awkwardly proclaiming the absence of xenophobia in South Africa, they were unwittingly transforming the country into a fictive entity perhaps because reality had become too sordid to bear. The phony smiles and false assurances of beautiful news anchor women seemed much too contrived and disconnected to provide the merest modicum of succor.
After endless reports of ‘state capture’, governmental graft and the all-too-common descent into postcolonial atrophy, an even more sickening malaise soon reared its head: the prejudicial demonization of the other, the supposed foreign body, in order to avoid and postpone collective reflection and fabricate alternative orders of reality. As foreign bodies were being hammered in broad-daylight, South Africa was still able to remind herself that it had one of the most advanced and humane constitutions in the world. Again, reality was just too difficult to bear, and South Africans simply had to create an alternative or parallel cosmos.
The 2019 Afrophobic violence also revealed more graphically, South Africa’s problematic relationship with the rest of the continent. It seemed that South Africa is perpetually ill-at-ease with her role and stature within the continent. South Africa seems to contradict and undermine African internal dynamics; the continent’s notions of territoriality and belonging and even her organization of everyday life and finally, the accumulation and distribution of wealth. The mass lootings and violence dredged up the hidden monsters barely lurking beneath the fragile veneer of civility and presumed good public ethics.
The government’s adamant denials of the presence of xenophobia parallel Mbeki’s denials of the verities of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The denials of xenophobia should not be taken lightly. It forebodes a serial reoccurrence of similar tragedies until their root causes are addressed. Unfortunately, the political will to take appropriate action seems to be lacking.
A society that discovers its raison d’etre in the violent othering of ‘outsiders,’ that constantly seeks all sorts of barriers—linguistic, cultural, racial, ethnic etc.—where none should exist inevitably constrains the possibilities of what we regard as human. In its quest for a form of totalitarianism, for an illusory purity, it invariably announces the advent of its own retrogression.
South Africa cruelly broke our hearts and tossed back her huge mane of artificial hair in disgust and befuddlement. And perhaps this is the biggest injury.
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