Ethnic cleansing sure to follow xenophobia
Our collective inertia in the face of the human catastrophe that is engulfing this nation has contrived to remind me of Pastor Martin Niemöller's now legendary words about the atrocities committed by Hitler and his Nazis.
He said: "First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me."
When the new wave of xenophobic attacks took place in Soweto a month ago - new because the first dates back to 2008 - many looked the other way, and dismissed it as "something that will pass".
It did not. Like all good viruses, it restlessly moved around the country, looking for a place it could get traction. It finally settled for KwaZulu-Natal.
It used KwaZulu-Natal as a springboard from which to re-launch itself and infect the whole nation as we saw last week.
But wait, the virus was not done yet. A new strain of the virus reared its head on Saturday, at Emalahleni informal settlement near Nancefield Hostel in Soweto. It was here that Florence Mukwevho fell victim to the virus. Her sin? She is Venda-speaking.
She told the media that her assailants had shouted: "We do not want Venda, Shangaan, Sotho and Tswana people."
Thanks to our general acquiescence, the xenophobes had sent the foreigners packing. What next? They had to look for another group that, in their warped minds, represented the "threat from outside".
Therefore, in a neighbourhood dominated by Zulu speakers, "the threat from outside" came in the form of non-Ngunis who, as the general refrain would have it, "steal our jobs", disadvantage us when it comes to access to economic resources.
This myopic and sad case of self-entitlement had me thinking of an uncomfortably embarrassing incident that took place in 1998 when I was editor of Sunday World, that had recently been launched.
The affair which, until this week, I thought was safely buried in the catacombs of my heart involved me, Mondli Makhanya (then my deputy), and Bongani Keswa (general manager at the time), and an eminent black academic who shall remain anonymous.
Still excited at the waves we were making in local journalism, we soon learned that our back-patting sessions were premature. We had committed a mammoth sin.
In a letter addressed to the editor, the academic was outraged at the fact that this new newspaper was nothing but a venture for Zulus - Keswa, Makhanya and me, all at the top echelon of the paper, were all Zulus. This matter needed to be investigated, fumed the letter writer who was Tswana-speaking.
Was it because of a lack of duly educated and talented journalists in Gauteng, the writer fumed, that Zulus should come all the way from KZN to run a publication that is based in Johannesburg?
He went on to mention the names of eminent Tswana-speaking journalists with whom, incidentally, I had worked at City Press and other publications.
He signed off by saying he was going to lay a formal complaint with Zwelakhe Sisulu, one of the founders of New Africa Investments Limited, co-owners of Sunday World. In the hustle and bustle of producing a newspaper, I didn't check whether Sisulu received the letter from the academic.
It was a disturbing letter. Disturbing because when I took up the job - having been interviewed by a multiracial panel that included Aggrey Klaaste, Mike Tissong and Brian Pottinger - and when I finally engaged the services of Makhanya, not once did I consider the fact that I wanted to surround myself with Zulus. I simply wanted to produce a good paper, working with the crème de la crème of local journalism.
That the complainant accused Keswa of being from KZN was most hilarious because Keswa (bless his soul) spoke the most corrupt version of Zulu - as do most Soweto-born Zulus I know.
The common generalisation about tribal chauvinism is that it is the province of uneducated, unsophisticated rustic bumpkins. Far from the truth. The fact that the academic in question has a doctorate and is attached to a prominent academic institution, should tell you otherwise.
That he took the trouble to write indicates that he would have discussed the matter with like-minded, and possibly equally educated individuals who thought he was articulate enough to be the spokesman of the " tribe".
When we keep quiet as foreigners are being attacked, we are only making the ground fertile for the possible germination of other chauvinistic tendencies, or helping rekindle the fires that we thought we'd long extinguished - tribalism, regionalism.
Sing, hum, or chant Pastor Niemöller's words as your daily mantra, and your mind will stay focused and your conscience alert in these challenging days. If the academic in question is a man of integrity and conscience, he will respond and explain himself.
l Comments: FredKhumalo@post.harvard.edu; twitter @FredKhumalo