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Ignoring xenophobia is a danger that will get to you some day

S'thembiso Msomi Without the Gang
Residents in Turffontein recently looted shops owned by foreigners.
Residents in Turffontein recently looted shops owned by foreigners.
Image: Thulani Mbele

Frantz Fanon was still a student when his philosophy teacher from a small island in the Americas told him this:

“When you hear someone insulting the Jews pay attention; he is talking about you.”

Fanon, the renowned political philosopher and a leading thinker of the decolonisation movement, went on to write in his Black Skin, White Masks, first published in 1952, that he believed the teacher’s statement to be universally true.

“...I was responsible in my body and my soul for the fate reserved for my brother. Since then, I have understood that what he meant quite simply was the anti-Semite is inevitably a negrophobe.”

At the time of writing the book, discrimination against Jewish people was still prevalent in Europe where they were seen by some as not being white, and therefore not Euopean enough.

It was the teacher’s observation that those who held such views against Jewish people in Europe and other parts of the world that were under European colonial rule, ultimately proved themselves to be anti-black.

But Fanon and his teacher could have substituted “Jews” and “Semites” with any other groups on earth that were victims of racial or ethnic prejudice, discrimination and, yes, colonialism, and the statement would have still been true.

Those who discriminate and spread hate against others because they deem them to be “inferior” or “less human” to them eventually turn on you, the black person.

So when someone starts speaking ill of “the other”, be they “Indian”, “Coloured” or “foreigner”, be careful, he is talking about you.

I learned this lesson in the most violent way as a primary school pupil down in Durban a couple of decades ago.

I could not read and understand Fanon then, but the violence that flared up in the area drove the point home.

A group of heavily armed men from a nearby informal settlement started rounding up men and boys in my area for a “war” to “drive out Indians” from another neighbouring informal settlement.

The violence went on for a while, leading to deaths, the destruction of property and the closure of local schools.

When the violence eventually subsided, many of the “Indians” had fled the informal settlement and the land they used to occupy was taken over.

But then the vigilantes turn their spears, knobkirries and guns on township residents. This time “the other’s” crime was not that he was of Indian descent, but that he happened to support a political movement different to that backed by the vigilantes.

A similar story was playing itself out south of the city, where “the other” was initially defined as the amaMpondo migrant workers from what is today known as the Eastern Cape. It didn’t take long too for the violence against “amaMpondo” to escalate to attacks against township residents.  

In both these instances, township residents did not take a stand when “the other” was being attacked. They watched on, believing they were not affected. Those who did condemn the violence, did so without actively standing with those who were being discriminated against and violated.

We are making the same mistake by not actively standing with, and defending, fellow Africans and other black immigrants who are victims of xenophobia.

As much as there are genuine grievances about undocumented immigrants who are involved in criminal activities in our country, nothing can justify the violence we have witnessed against foreign nationals in Gauteng.

If we let vigilantes act out their prejudices under the pretext of driving out “drug-dealing Nigerians”, we will have no leg to stand on when - in future - they turn their spears against some of us because they speak Venda, Tsonga or Ndebele.

Xenophobia is but a branch of tribalism and, although often dressed-up in nationalist colours, a serious threat to nationhood.