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Sunday Times STLive By Johnny Steinberg , 2012-04-08

A month of infamy makes us cry for our ordinary country


Image: Sunday Times

The xenophobic attacks of May 2008 had a special impact on paler minorities

As we all know, about 45 people are murdered in South Africa each day. Which means that over the past four years, about 68000 people have been killed by another's hand. Of all these murders, 62 have been talked about, thought about, and, above all, written about, more than the rest combined.

I am referring to the 62 people who were killed during the xenophobic violence in May 2008. Why have these murders commanded so much more attention than all of the rest? There are many reasons, but one among them is this: most of the scholars and public commentators sufficiently seized by xenophobic violence to keep writing about it - and I include myself here - conform to a particular profile. They are from racial minorities and they were either involved in, or were deeply sympathetic to, the struggle against apartheid.

Why would this category of people find themselves so drawn to these 62 murders? The answer, I think, is that the eruption of May 2008 shattered the notion that South Africa was extraordinary. And those in the struggle who were of paler pigmentation had to think South Africa extraordinary to identify with it at all.

I vividly remember a day in 1997 when I was a student at Oxford University and Albie Sachs came to speak. It was a dark, miserable, English afternoon. Homesick and a little depressed, I stepped into a crowded hall. There was this beaming, charismatic, one-armed man in his Madiba shirt, talking about my country in the most seductive tones. I do not remember the words he used, but I certainly remember his spirit. South Africa, he said, was a cacophony of rude, brash voices. There were gay people and straight people, Zulu nationalists and Anglophile snobs. On a night out, you could choose between a transvestite fashion show or a classical concert. Everyone was in your face and nobody would ever stand down. The essence of South Africa, he said, was that it had no essence; it was irreducibly diverse, and it celebrated the fact, in its constitution, in its politics, and in its collective spirit.

The truth is that by 1997, Sachs's idea of extraordinary was among the only viable ones left. The great struggle between capitalism and socialism was over, and countries like South Africa had to play by a strictly prescribed set of economic rules. For a fluid, wild and diverse country like ours, the path to uniqueness lay in openness; in developing an idea of citizenship and belonging that was truly promiscuous, truly welcoming.

May 2008 closed the door on all that. In the rudest terms, South Africa showed itself to be an ordinary country. It behaved like every new, insecure nation has done for the past 100 years.

When the great northern empires - Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian - collapsed during and after World War 1, many of the small nation states formed in their wake - Romania, Poland and many others - greeted their fledgling independence with brittleness, insecurity and national chauvinism, turning upon outsiders and minorities.

Similarly, when Africans became fully fledged citizens for the first time in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many claimed their new-found citizenship by turning against people who had been living among them for generations. In its first two decades of independence, Nigeria expelled three million people, Ghana several hundred thousand.

South Africa, it turns out, is repeating an old story. In the 1960s and 1970s, countless immigrants from Zambia and Malawi quietly integrated into South African townships; nobody called them makwerekwere. Today, South Africans, jealous of the citizenship they have acquired, are not quite so friendly.

We expected an ANC government to be different, to be special, to teach South Africans a new and more expansive idea of citizenship. But the ANC isn't special. It is set on the familiar, wildly ambitious task of ruling for generations. To this cause, it plays cheap and nasty. It is far too determined to be expansive.

I say that those who keep writing about May 2008, and about the daily persecution of foreigners before and since, are drawn overwhelmingly from racial minorities. I realise that this will cause offence. I am not for a moment suggesting that xenophobia is any less painful for African South Africans. But the truth is that for racial minorities involved in the anti-apartheid movement, African nationalism was never going to be a patriotic glue. For them, the anti-nationalism which people like Sachs celebrated was far more seductive.

And so, when we write with urgency about xenophobia, we are obviously reaching out to human beings in distress. But we are also giving expression to our own disappointment.