Will xenophobia morph into political thuggery?

Saturday April 18 2015

I was in Johannesburg this week and, unsurprisingly, I couldn’t escape the conversation about the current wave of xenophobic attacks, targeting mainly Somali, Ethiopian and Malawian shop-owners.

There are always those who ask, “Who will they attack next after they are done with the African immigrants?” The answers are uncomfortable.

On Tuesday, the Times had a little item on page two that was revealing.

A reporter and photographer covering residents in a township looting foreign-owned shops were threatened and told to leave. Not because the looters didn’t want to be covered, but because the photographer was a South African Asian. The reporter was black.

“We don’t want to talk to dogs, especially an Indian dog,” said a looter who was brandishing a hammer, the Times reported.

Also, last weekend a man vandalised the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Johannesburg. The great man Gandhi’s history in South Africa before he went back to India to lead an inspired non-violent campaign for Independence is contradictory. At one point, he held racist views.


But he evolved, and generally Gandhi is more celebrated for his latter-day progressive ideals.

Why does any of this matter? Because there are two views toward the xenophobic attacks in South Africa. One is that post-apartheid reform was shallow, and the ANC has been corrupt and incompetent, so it has not done enough to create opportunities, and has been hopeless at sharing the nation’s wealth.

Indeed, South Africa today is more unequal than during apartheid, and having youth unemployment in such a rich country is asking for trouble.

The second is that South Africa is a second-rate welfare state, and the people have been turned lazy by handouts, and become averse to hard work. Thus when foreigners fleeing from the hardships in places like Somalia arrive, they slave 24/7, build their businesses, and so “jealous” South Africans attack and rob them.

I was told that both these views oversimplify a bigger problem. The worst fears of progressives in South Africa are that the xenophobic attacks are political. Hardline and rogue elements in the ANC and the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party are behind the violence.

As the ANC moderates lose out and the electoral fortunes of the party slowly decline, the thuggish elements are rising.
They are encouraging their militant youth supporter to loot from small-time African immigrant shop-owners to pay themselves, and because they believe it will do less damage to the national economy.

The idea is to keep the militants fed through the looting until the elections of 2019. On current form, the ANC’s election fortunes will shrink further. That is when the present “looters” will be unleashed for their real purpose — to visit violence on political opponents.

It was a shocking and sad analysis, but there is a small but growing group of moderate voices in South Africa who see things that way. One always hopes for the best, but it would be one of the greatest African tragedies if we arrive in 2019 and find out that South African author Allan Paton wrote his famous Cry the Beloved Country 70 years too early.