Putting a spin on xenophobic attacks is the wrong diagnosis of the problem

Fred Khumalo Watching You
Xenophobia is an international phenomenon, however, in SA it is more complex, says the writer, pointing to yet another upsurge of xenophobic sentiment that has left seven people dead.
Xenophobia is an international phenomenon, however, in SA it is more complex, says the writer, pointing to yet another upsurge of xenophobic sentiment that has left seven people dead.
Image: THEO JEPTHA

It was in June 2016 that I found myself under attack in Cologne, Germany, for the simple reason that I came from SA.

The attack did not come from German white supremacists, but from a bunch of West Africans who were angry with me because I came from a country that was killing fellow Africans.

The irony is that the attacks on my person happened after I'd just given a stinging attack on xenophobic sentiment which was at the time sweeping across both SA and Germany. This after the arrival in that country of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who'd fled their country in the wake of the outbreak of war.

Now, as I write this I am at OR Tambo International on my way to Germany again. This time I am attending a writers' conference where we will discuss sexism, racism and xenophobia, among other issues.

This at a time when SA is experiencing yet another upsurge of xenophobic sentiment. At least seven people were killed in Durban last week in what has been described as xenophobic attacks. The sense of deja vu is palpable.

Yes, xenophobia is an international phenomenon. The fulminations of Donald Trump about Mexicans, a European onslaught on Syrian refugees, Spaniards on the rampage against Africans being spat out by the sea - on to their beaches - all of these are instances of xenophobia.

However, in SA xenophobia is more complex. Make no mistake, we have thousands of foreign nationals from Eastern Europe and the Middle East in this country, but they have thus far been left alone.

The foreigners feeling the brunt of xenophobic sentiment are poor Africans, suffering at the hands of black people from here.

At one level, it is easy to understand local people's frustrations: no matter which way we want to dress it up, there is fierce competition for scarce resources in the country. Jobs and accommodation, mainly.

Wherever you go in the world, when there is economic strife, the poorest of the poor are most likely to vent their own frustrations against each other, before they escalate the war to those responsible for their plight.

In SA there is evidence that the government has failed to deliver services and jobs to locals. Financial resources earmarked for service delivery got stolen, as we have gathered from the numerous commissions currently in session.

Given our history as a country whose liberation movements were given succour by our fellow Africans at the height of apartheid, it is understandable that our government should be sympathetic to the deluge of refugees from other parts of our continent.

Now, the economic and political refugees are here and clearly many are here to stay. What is government's plan, if there is one?

Both President Cyril Ramaphosa and international relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu have been at pains to say there is no xenophobic sentiment in the country.

They say the killings that happened in Durban last week were as a result of criminal activities.

No matter which way you spin it, foreigners are being killed specifically because they are foreigners. I cannot understand why government doesn't want to acknowledge the problem for what it is and deal with it on that basis.

If the diagnosis is wrong, surely the cure or the solution will be equally wrong. It is as simple as that.

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