One attack is all it takes to destroy our image of humanity

11 July 2010 - 02:00 By Thabo Leshilo

Thabo Leshilo: The hugely successful 2010 Soccer World Cup will end amid pomp and ceremony at the magnificent Soccer City Stadium this evening.

The final whistle will, no doubt, be followed by lots of breast-beating as the nation basks in the glory of having proved itself equal to the gruelling test.

And why not? We have, after all, confounded the Afro-pessimists and other Doubting Thomases.

Unfortunately, the celebrations will be peppered with anxiety among conscientious people because of the much-publicised rumours of an outbreak of xenophobic violence come tomorrow.

Is it really possible that the same people who only a week ago rooted for Ghana to salvage Africa's pride after South Africa's inglorious exit from the tournament would suddenly turn against their fellow Africans?

Lest we forget, the country sold the 2010 World Cup as also being about celebrating the continent's humanity. How we remain true to that will be judged as much by the warmth we displayed towards our wealthier overseas visitors as by the way we treat the less fortunate who have sought shelter among us.

We can say goodbye to the goodwill and tourism billions expected to flow our way for successfully hosting the soccer tournament if a single foreigner is attacked and the images hit the world media.

The lengths to which we went to ensure the safety of tourists during the soccer spectacular - including increased visible policing and special courts - have demonstrated that the state can deal crime a decisive blow if it wants to.

It would not be asking too much of the government to maintain the same level of vigilance to prevent any outbreak of xenophobic violence.

Surely the extra police on the beat and special courts that dispensed swift justice during the tournament can be diverted to take on the haters? Failure will send the message that we value wealthier overseas visitors more, that our humanity has a price tag bearing the dollar, yen, pound or euro sign.

Celebrating Africa's humanity must translate into treating the vulnerable - in this case refugees and asylum seekers - with compassion.

Thankfully, there were signs this week that the authorities are taking decisive action to prevent the attacks. At the time of writing on Thursday, the police had moved into the Ramaphosa informal settlement on the East Rand, scene of some of the bloodiest xenophobic attacks in 2008.

There will be a lot of debate and finger-pointing. "Alarmist NGOs" will be criticised for starting the rumours. The "irresponsible media" will also come under attack for giving them credence and amplifying the panic.

But all that is best left for another debate. The most pressing thing now is to ensure that not a single person is harmed.

It's encouraging to see that the security establishment has moved beyond questioning the credibility of reports; the fact is that foreign Africans feel unsafe here and are fleeing.

That much was evident in photographs and testimonials in the media this week. This in the full glare of the world press covering the World Cup.

The media have been tested on this one before and were found wanting dismally. We were caught by surprise when the killings occurred in 2008. Unfortunately, nothing suggests the situation has improved much.

How else do we explain the fact that not one of the bigots who have been brazenly making such threats has been exposed?