OTHER than coming up with a fancy Sotho brand name “Fiela” (sweep) to possibly seem ‘local and lekker’, whoever branded the government’s post-xenophobic operation seems to have been in a hurry and, as a result, failed to think and brainstorm the matter sufficiently before submitting it for implementation.operation-fiela

They could have called it “Operation Lukisa” and still remained ‘local and lekker’. There is something uncomfortably indiscriminate about ‘Fiela’ (think of a sweeping motion) when it applies to human communities, whereas ‘Lukisa’ – which means fix – implies that only that which is in a state of disrepair gets attended to.

It is no wonder the government finds itself on the back foot, having to explain the rationale behind ‘Operation Fiela’ at every turn. The government has a lot to ‘lukisa’, no doubt – not just the socio-economic conditions and mindsets that led to the attacks against foreigners.

The bigger picture

Let us admit it, responding adequately to the recent wave of xenophobic attacks was never going to be an easy task for government. Some of us saw from the outset that there were two sides to this story. And this is not wisdom nourished by hindsight alone. We’ve been saying this right from the start, but we’re obviously not in the inner ‘who’s who’ circles to be taken seriously.

The one side, understandably more urgent, required quick action to stem the senseless, indiscriminate attacks against (mostly African) foreigners. The situation was quickly running out of control and Brand SA’s reputation seemed to be in a faster free-fall than even Eskom could dream of engineering (pun intended).

Mainstream South Africa – business, media and the ‘enlightened classes’ – was embarrassed by what was going on, rightfully worried about damage to national brand reputation and our human rights record.

For much of Africa, this was a cold smack in the face because many of South Africa’s post-apartheid leaders literally grew up in their countries, benefiting from shelter, education and, in some cases, military assistance against apartheid South Africa.

The outside world saw an ungrateful lot who had forgotten the friends who had stood by them during many decades of anti-apartheid struggle.

How the other half feels

The other side to this story required community level and national re-education, as well as fixing; especially fixing. While mainstream South Africa seemed in denial about the socio-economic conditions that led to the xenophobic attacks – wanting to sweep them under the carpet – there is a part of our population that is brutally frank about the impact of massive arrivals of foreigners into their communities to compete for the same government services, business and job opportunities.

This South Africa is also active in some social media conversations, if you’re digitally friended to the right people.

The ‘enlightened classes’ might deny this all they want to because they seldom interact at those levels, but there are many fellow South Africans – and I know of some in my own extended family – who remain adamant to this day that the attacks will happen again if there is no indication that government is doing anything to stem the arrival of uncontrolled competition from north of the Limpopo.

Mainstream South Africa wants us to simply show some love to our brothers and sisters from elsewhere on the continent; the other South Africa, under-represented in the mainstream, wants to see the money, service delivery, job and business opportunities in a fairly protected environment.

They’re driven by simple bread and butter issues. It is up to government to find clever ways to marry these two sets of expectations.

With local government elections looming in 2016, government is walking a tightrope.

Many holes in Brand SA bucket

But ‘Operation Lukisa’ would have to go beyond ensuring that African foreigners are not attacked in South Africa. The bucket carrying Brand SA already has too many holes in it and is leaking reputation points in huge volumes, from all sides.

We have to celebrate the contributions made by many fellow African scholars in South African academia, and many businesspeople and investors who create jobs and form credible business relationships with locals, as well as others who enrich our socio-political discourse on a daily basis.

But this shouldn’t stop government from dealing with those who collude in the corruption of our immigration systems and get involved in cross-border crime.

‘Operation Lukisa’ should also extend to cleaning up the mess we continue to witness in state-owned companies. The business of handing over unexplained golden handshakes to increasing numbers of high-ranking government officials and keeping us in the dark – literally through Eskom and figuratively through government conduct – must be stemmed.

If government does these things the right way, our reputational fortunes might start looking positive again.