South Africa: Xenophobia - Call It By Its Name!

5 September 2019

Xenophobia. Yes, that is what it is and we should use the word to describe the attacks that South Africans mete out to foreign nationals who are in the country.

It was back in 2008, when xenophobic attacks erupted in Alexandra, Johannesburg.

In no time, similar attacks were recorded in townships across the country.

The end result: 62 deaths and thousands left destitute. Arrests were made and government promised to deal with this kind of criminality.

Then president Thabo Mbeki, who was fond of denying things, told the world that "what happened during those days was not inspired by possessed nationalism, or extreme chauvinism, resulting in our communities violently expressing the hitherto unknown sentiments of mass and mindless hatred of foreigners - xenophobia".

He denied that South Africans would ever attack people because they were foreigners.

"I heard it said insistently that my people have turned or become xenophobic ... I wondered what the accusers knew about my people which I did not know."

Since then, sporadic attacks on foreign nationals have been recorded around the country.

During or after every attack, government leaders have refused to utter the word 'xenophobia' when attacks have broken out.

Former president Jacob Zuma expressed doubt that South Africans could ever be xenophobic because foreigners had always been with us.

He said: "We love using phrases in South Africa that at the time cause unnecessary perceptions about us."

In the past fortnight, following a fresh outbreak of xenophobic violence in Durban, President Cyril Ramaphosa condemned the "violence against foreign nationals in South Africa", without mentioning the x-word.

"There can be no justification for criminality and if communities are disaffected for any reason, grievances must be raised with government and must be done within the confines of the law."

International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu put the attacks down to "pure criminality", while eThekwini Mayor Zandile Gumede vowed "to act against criminal activities or against those who are inciting violence".

What is our leaders' aversion to calling it what it is? If we do not call it by name, we will not defeat it.

It is called xenophobia and it must end - now.

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