Quote of the week

Universal adult suffrage on a common voters roll is one of the foundational values of our entire constitutional order. The achievement of the franchise has historically been important both for the acquisition of the rights of full and effective citizenship by all South Africans regardless of race, and for the accomplishment of an all-embracing nationhood. The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and of personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts. In a country of great disparities of wealth and power it declares that whoever we are, whether rich or poor, exalted or disgraced, we all belong to the same democratic South African nation; that our destinies are intertwined in a single interactive polity.

Justice Albie Sachs
August and Another v Electoral Commission and Others (CCT8/99) [1999] ZACC 3
18 May 2008

Xenophobia excused or explained?

Much has already been written about the appalling attacks on fellow Africans in Alexandra and elsewhere around Gautentg. It is, of course, easy to take the moral high ground and condemn the attacks and it is good to see that a cross section of politicians and civil society groups have done just that. But it is more difficult to try and understand this dreadful manifestation of prejudice and hatred.

Two quite different approaches to this problem seems evident. On Thought Leader Michael Trapido has posted a provocative piece in which he argues that the people of Alexandra are Diepsloot who have spearheaded the attacks, looting and murder of foreigners are owed an apology for the insensitive way they have been treated by the press, experts and politicians.

Money quote:

Many “experts” and politicians are jumping on to the “clampdown on xenophobia” bandwagon without so much as a casual remark about those victims suffering from uncontrolled immigration run wild. Perhaps they’d best remember that these so-called members of a third force (or criminals, as they are so quick to judge them) are, in the main, simply the residents of towns and cities overrun by immigrants.

So, if only we had better border control and kept out those evil immigrants it would not have been necessary for the good people of Alexandra and Diepsloot to murder them and loot their belongings. This seems deeply wrongheaded to me. It is one thing to try and understand the frustrations of poor people who feel desperate and are therefore looking around for someone to blame. It is another to suggest that the problem is not xenophobia but the fact that there are too many immigrants. This smacks of blaming the victim and is not in accordance with the values of a human rights based society which we want to create in this country.

A much better analysis – at least as far as I am concerned – is the piece in this morning’s City Press by Andile Mngxitama who points out that not all foreigners are targeted in these attacks. White foreigners coming from the UK or Australia (god forbid) are not called names like “makwerekwere” and their homes are not looted and burnt. As Mngxitama points out:

Since these attacks are targeted at black Africans, why do we continue using the term xenophobia, which generally refers to the hatred of foreigners? Our country doesn’t hate all foreigners, in fact white foreigners are revered by both rich and poor blacks. The rise of negrophobia is the logical conclusion of our failure to decolonise our minds and also socioeconomic realities. Government and public responses are disingenuous and woefully inadequate. What have we done to help the victims in Alex? We need action not nice talk……

We have failed to humanise our society through genuine freedom which leads to material and psychological liberation. The depoliticisation and demobilisation of our communities to influence the post-1994 politics of profits above people are contributing factors….The colonial border and the criminalisation of Africans is complicated by the anti-black racism rife in South Africa and etched in the psyches of both blacks and whites.

This is perhaps our dirty little secret: that race hatred (whether one can call it racism is another debate) is shared by many South Africans of all colours. Some of my foreign students tell me of how they are often discriminated against and vilified by both black and white South Africans because they happen to have a skin colour that is darker than the average South African.

Are these attacks not a sign of how successful apartheid has been in instilling race based prejudices in our hearts? The big question is, of course, how to begin to address this race based prejudice. This is not an easy question to anaswer. Maybe we can start by ending the denial that such prejudices exist amongst our brothers and sisters. More complicated is the question of how we begin to undo the hundreds of years of race based thinking on which such prejudices are based given the fact that white racism is still so rife and given that we still need affirmative action to overcome past oppression.

It would be naive and irresponsible merely to run around claiming that race does not matter or that we are all just human beings and that race should therefore be banished from our lexicon. That is the favourite strategy of those whites who do not wish to acknowledge the injustices of the past. Maybe a more nuanced understanding of race is required. An understanding that starts with the acknowledgment that while race is very real for most South Africans (because it is the basis on which they have been oppressed), race is a construction – an invention of the West.

But I cannot pretend I know how I would begin such a discussion with the people of Alexandra and Diepsloot without sounding like an effete Latte drinking, white liberal. All I know, if we do not talk about these things, the days will only get darker in South Africa – and I am not talking about Eskom.

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