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South Africa and the denial of xenophobia

02 Feb 2015 at 13:08hrs | Views
The history of the 20th century is one of tragic national denials that became fuel and springboards for numerous wars and on the back of which genocide was invented long before there was a word for it.

Consider the genocidal attempt to exterminate the Nama and Herero people of German South West Africa (Namibia) at the turn of the 20th century, the rubber killings of King Leopold in the Belgian Congo, and Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jews, atrocities initially denied and deliberately misnamed.

The original genocide is slavery and colonialism, a blot on the human soul whose continuing skewing influence on the global economy and haunting of the human psyche have yet to be fully acknowledged, let alone exorcised.

The 21st century, welcomed with much fanfare and optimism, has already wrought its mound of deadly denials, and its heap of corpses is piling up fast.

Consider (former US President George W) Bush and (ex-British premier Tony) Blair's non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the mass destruction they unleashed on the Iraqi people.

Consider the Rwandan genocide, named as such only after the fact.

Consider Charles Taylor's barbaric reign of terror in Liberia.

Consider the continuing land and cultural dispossession of the Aboriginal people in Australia's utopia.

What about the convenient and state-sponsored exposure of the "slaves" of Darfur to the marauding thugs called the Janjaweed?

The rallying cry of the Janjaweed was "kill the slaves", reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan's "hang the nigger".

The tragedy of many African conflicts and bigotries is they relate to borders and nationalities artificially created at the 1884 Berlin conference where Africa was carved up among the colonial masters.

Africans did not invent slavery or colonialism.

But some African elites were not innocent in the facilitation of the sale of fellow Africans to the European and Arab slave masters.

Consider the brewing, if also nonsensical, Venda-Tsonga conflict in Limpopo's Malamulele.

Except that conflict is real, with each minority ethnic group trying to outfox the other, one having "captured" a municipality and using its "advantage" to devastating effect.

The scramble for contracts, jobs, opportunities and resources is turning ugly.

It is against this background that we should seek to understand the shameful saga of the xenophobic looting of shops owned by foreign nationals and the violence against them.

The attacks of 2008 did not die out, they simply went into hibernation and low intensity.

Senior government officials - notably in the presidency in 2008 and more recently Gauteng's Community Safety MEC, Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane - have said the attacks are not xenophobic but merely criminal.

The denial of xenophobia serves several functions.

A few examples may suffice.

First, the denial itself functions as a peddler and sanctifier of "soft xenophobia" - a kind of first order of xenophobia.

Although distinct from crass xenophobia, soft xenophobia is no less dangerous.

It clears the road for the second order xenophobia of looting, robbery and violence.

Many countries and people of the world - some of them with a holier-than-thou attitude - practise only soft xenophobia.

They never call it xenophobia.

Instead they speak softly and cleverly of the menace of economic refugees, illegal aliens and undocumented immigrants.

These groups of people are often kept in holding barracks of all sorts, and later shipped off to Papua New Guinea or "back to wherever they came from".

In many countries, the middle and upper classes practise soft xenophobia even as they curse and condemn the lower classes for being xenophobic.

As the poor express their xenophobia through looting, the rich express their soft but equally vicious xenophobia by offering slave jobs and slave salaries for the "undocumented" and the "illegal" in their businesses (legal and illegal) and in their suburban homes as domestics and gardeners.

Second, the denial of xenophobia by highly placed officials is the proverbial wink from on high that says "Go get 'em".

With at least one policeman allegedly caught looting on camera and three charged with robbing a Somali businessman near Kimberley in the Northern Cape, who knows who else is benefiting from the mayhem and how?

Third, given that white expats astonishingly have never been targeted, we must conclude that what we have on display in South Africa is internalised and externalised racism or what others have called Afrophobia.

This is the poor turning on the fellow poor, the black turning on those who look like themselves, "slave" against "slave" and self-hate on display.

Fourth, the search by the police and politicians for pure stand-alone and unadulterated xenophobia is as mischievous as it is dangerous.

Like racism, xenophobia has become sophisticated.

It no longer travels alone and almost always is accompanied by criminality, substance abuse, patriarchy, provincialism and ethnocentrism.

To suggest an either/or explanation is to fail to see this and that other forms of exclusion intersect, overlap, coexist and reinforce one another.

Fifth, an unspoken function of denial is the attempt to "remove the evidence" and to forget the crime in a desperate attempt to wipe away the memory of the perpetrators and the victims.

The killing of the black slaves of Darfur, like the hanging of the "niggers" in the US was, whatever other functions it served, also intended to put a permanent end to the shameful reminder of complicity and the fear of possible revenge in the future.

Before embarking on the slave ship, the slaves were required to drink a dementia-inducing potion or perform a ritual of forgetting at the "tree of forgetfulness".

The Somalis, Ethiopians, Malawians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Burundians whose shops were looted in Soweto are not likely to forget soon.

Nor should we.

Our leaders must help us embrace this moment of truth.

As Nel tried to urge Pistorius, we too must admit to being a nation that engages in xenophobic looting, violence and murder.

We must admit to allowing these things to be done in our name and on our watch.

Only when we have made this admission can we remorsefully commence the long way home to (our own) humanity.

Maluleke is a professor at the University of Pretoria and writes in his personal capacity.

Source - Sunday Independent
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