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Xenophobia. Part three.

Exciting title, eh? Today is international non-sensationalist headline day. Yes, I made that up. But it should totally be a day.

The issue of xenophobia has become fairly muted in recent days. It’s got boring, you know? Which is a pity, because it certainly hasn’t gone away. We owe it to ourselves (friends from far away included) to keep it relevant.

The tale of the waiter, the car guard and the family whose colour is irrelevant

Although I am reticent to admit it, I had dinner at the Spur recently. In my defence, it was at the request of my son, for lack of a convenient Wimpy (which would have been equally shameful). In Spur’s defence, it was a perfectly acceptable dinner.

While there, my wife made the observation (without malice) that the vast majority of the staff were not South African. In suburban Cape Town, the threat of a xenophobic outbreak seems insignificant, but in the context of greater South Africa, the presence and purpose of foreigners is pertinent.

Out of curiosity, I engaged our waiter in conversation. His name was Tanashe, though he introduced himself as Lawrence. I asked him where he was from, even as I apologised – too often, I suspect, the question arises as an accusation rather than out of curiosity – but he countered me with the statement that it was a very good question. If anything, he was proud to be from Zimbabwe, in his first year at a nearby college. He seemed eager to recommend places to visit in Zimbabwe, and (possibly only in my imagination) quite pleased to engage someone as a person with a story rather than as a waiter.

Later, en route to the car, we encountered a car guard who was very South African, and slightly drunk. He seemed a little more vested in his remuneration than his actual (possibly self-appointed) responsibility. To my shame, I did not engage him on his goals and ambitions.

Incidentally, my son enjoyed his chico-the-clown, but was distraught that we ate so quickly (and thus cut his time in the play area short).

So what is the moral of this short story? Well, you would be foolish to extrapolate anything much about our South African society or xenophobia from this little anecdote. And I would be lying if I didn’t admit to stacking the odds against you in making such a judgement. But real life is nowhere near so simple.

But the experience did raise some interesting questions when I intended to be sleeping.

Simple story, complex questions

Why did the young Zimbabwean man make so much better an impression on me? Was it his manners, or that he was helpful? Was it only that he had something to offer me, that the car guard didn’t? Was it the way in which he expressed hope? Was it that he expressed pride in his land of origin? Zimbabwe, if anything, has less to be proud of than we, and yet he seemed keen to invite us there.

Having engaged him, why did I feel as if I were more likely to be susceptible to drunk-car-guard-ophobia than xenophobia? From the sounds of things, many of the victims of the recent violence where industrious, hard working people such as our waiter. What is ‘broken’ in my fellow South Africans to make them (us) want to drive away such people?

Tanashe, while possibly being better off than many foreign refugees by virtue of having the opportunity and means to study, could arguably still be said to have much to complain about. I did not wish to keep him from his work by asking him more deeply about his circumstances, but it was clear that his opportunities were the product of his hard work and not merely handed to him. What is it that fundamentally separates him from the car guard who harasses passers-by for payment?

I do not accept the simple argument that they – the ‘xenophobes’ – are bad people. Nor does my own recent description of incentives (in a previous post) do much more than offer a general explanation. While many will condemn the car guard, as they do the xenophobes, few stop to ask what it is that separates the builder from the thief. Few, but not none.

On to explanations

I spent quite some time reading viewpoints from a spectrum of people across different media sites, and it was my intention to unpack, analyse and occasionally criticise them here. There were many good ideas, and many of the viewpoints covered similar themes or highlighted some of the same primary ideas.

Fortunately, one article seemed to capture the spirit of the problem well enough to spare me the effort. While it wasn’t the most well written (nicely worded, but occasionally a bit disconnected), I would not be able to improve sufficiently on the ideas presented to not simply post it here.


If only to prove that I actually read the article (and to save you the trouble if you don’t want to read it yourself…but why would you do that?), I’ll précis the key points here:

-The South African government takes no clear stance on xenophobic violence except when left with no other choice, because to admit to such would be Bad Marketing.
-An ‘apartheid legacy’ – which the current government has failed to cure – taught, bred and encouraged violence, and corroded the social unit (which would otherwise reign in violence).
-Vulnerable foreign workers are an easy target for expressing frustration and envy, for creating a sense of power amongst those otherwise powerless, and simply for resources.
-Excessive consumption of resources (looting the state) by the ruling elite.
-While the ruling elite focus on looting, they are too busy to redress the legacy of apartheid. (My addition).

One important component of any good analysis, and where this piece falls short, is to provide recommendations. But that’s hard. I spent more time trying to verbalise these ideas than I did on the rest of the post. And still I had to settle for a bullet point progression of ideas. Lucky for me, this is a blog. And here it is.

-Jacob Zuma blamed apartheid. Strictly speaking he wasn’t wrong. But.
-Apartheid has fallen. While it carries significant blame for the current status quo, it can carry no current responsibility. An expanded note on this later…
-We ordinary citizens are not powerless. There is much we can do that is practical, and much that is being done. Food, blankets, shelter, public education…
-What we ordinary citizens do can easily be undone by “the government”. (An expanded note on this later…) Despite the constant work by people and organisations to mitigate the harm caused by xenophobic violence, the mere words of government officials (and, ahem, monarchs) causes damage an order of magnitude greater.
-Therefore, the government bears the greatest responsibility for the sort of changes needed to end this spirit of xenophobia permanently.
-We ordinary citizens, rather than simply shifting blame to government, as government so often shifts blame to apartheid, must take steps to hold government responsible. That’s complicated, but as a start would it simply be too naive to say “don’t vote ANC”?
-Ideas have power. Not always right away, but as good ideas are repeated, and gain momentum, they can become change. I was silent, until I was inspired to speak by the voices of those with admirable views. I will inspire others. And so on.

A note on ‘apartheid’ – The blame trade game between government and apartheid is one of those silly exchanges in which both sides are technically correct while simultaneously missing the point. Yes, we must absolutely acknowledge our past – and learn from it – but it absolutely is not an excuse for failing to act today.

A note on ‘the government’ – I hate this broad term, since in most cases we can define people and groups more narrowly than that. I use it here for the sake of simplicity, but there’s a long list of names we can single out if we need to.

Think I’m wrong? Think I’m naive? Please share – here, or on twitter, or via email. Whatever. Help me refine my ideas.

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