How many more have to die before we talk about why: iLIVE

19 April 2015 - 13:11 By GARETH VAN ONSELEN
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South Africa is in the grip of yet another xenophobic spasm. From photographs and TV footage it appears these brutal acts of violence against foreigners have been carried out exclusively by black South Africans.

It is not possible to determine offhand what other demographic, socioeconomic, political or cultural forces the perpetrators have in common — but you can be sure there is much to be learnt.

Indeed, given how prevalent the problem is becoming, it is remarkable how little we talk about it or try to understand its origins.

Outside academia — which has dedicated some time to this problem — we have expended little energy in trying to understand prejudices such as xenophobia. It is, after all, merely a particular variety of racism.

Even the word “xenophobia” remains relatively neutral in the public mind.

That is quickly changing as attacks on foreigners, in all their bloody horror, come to define front pages and news broadcasts.

The word does not, however, have as full and rich a connotative repertoire as “racism”, for example.

You cannot mention that word, by contrast, without instantaneously triggering a thousand other thoughts. And the complexity of the tools available to us to explore and understand racism perpetrated by white South Africans is immense — the subtle, implicit, historical, inherited, assumed, implied, blatant, by omission and commission, through language and body language, thought and deed.

But our understanding of xenophobia is positively primitive by comparison, and our interest in understanding it as spasmodic as the outbreaks themselves.

Journalists and commentators, too, do not generally dedicate as much space to the problem as they do to other forms of racism. Once the latest wave of xenophobic hatred has washed over South Africa, they will revert to normal, as if the sociological and psychological forces at play simply dissipated with the violence.

But you can be sure these forces remain, and the foreigners feel the prejudice, fear and alienation on a thousand subtle levels every day.

And when the xenophobic violence bursts forth again, it is remarkable how extreme it is. These are not incidents of people being turned away from restaurants, or bigoted words on Twitter, or the makeup of a sports team. This is the ultimate manifestation of hate.

That is not to downplay those other incidents as unimportant or unworthy of our time and understanding; only to say that on the scale of human hate, the current spate of xenophobic violence, as with those gone by, ranks near the top.

Why is it that we devote less time to understanding xenophobia?

One reason is that such an impetus runs against the grand, orthodox narrative so well entrenched in South Africa: that racism is a problem particular to white South Africans and, to counter it, white South Africans should be the focus of attention.

What xenophobia has revealed is that there are a significant number of black South Africans who have, over time, developed a particular and intense prejudice against foreigners.

That requires a critical look at those determining forces, how they interact, where they come from, and how they manifest in violence and hate.

That, in turn, involves difficult questions about culture, a subject we are usually quick to place above and beyond scrutiny in the name of “respect”, or that is considered to be apolitical and benign. There are invisible parameters to South African debate, largely determined by orthodoxy, and political correctness and “culture” e njoy special protection in this regard.

No more.

We can no longer afford to exclude culture from national debate. From initiation deaths to witch killings, muti murders, patriarchy and mob killings, there is a great deal about our culture we do not discuss - certainly which we never criticise. Xenophobia has been allowed to grow strong in such circumstances. It has found that, as long as it is not on the front pages, it can spread out of sight and beyond scrutiny.

Until it again raises its ugly head above the parapet. And perhaps, too, it is time for a look at the problems inherent to black African nationalism as a political ideology.

What is the long-term impact of racial nationalism on identity and to what degree does it foster and encourage an “us” and “them” mentality?

South Africa is a constitutional democracy with first-world aspirations, yet is constantly dragged back into the mire by third-world realities. Throughout Africa’s worst, most broken, war-torn regions you can find xenophobia. It is a blight on the continent. South Africa, we were told, was a beacon of hope. The light is flickering for sure.

Where did it come from?

The answer is, most likely, that it was always there, lurking beneath the surface. But no one stopped to ask how and why. It is now time to peel back the layers of political correctness and get stuck into the roots of the problem with serious determination.

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