President Cyril Ramaphosa was right to apologise on behalf of South Africa for the violence that engulfed parts of our country in recent weeks, much of which was directed at foreign nationals from the rest of the African continent. He is also correct to send out teams of emissaries to assure affected countries that his government and the majority of South Africans are ashamed of what has been done to their nationals in our country; that work will be done to ensure that none of it ever happens again.
In addition, he is correct to admonish the responsible elements in the taxi industry and other South Africans involved in the violent attacks on people and businesses alike to stop the madness and embrace their fellow Africans living in South Africa. He reminded them that they should do this in the spirit of humanity, mindful of the values enshrined in our Constitution and Bills of Rights. The President gets a basket of well-deserved kudos for all this. I’m tempted to add that he should brandish the same values and the need to respect the law or our land to some in the party he leads, but that would be a digression.
But he and the government are wrong to refuse acknowledging the obvious, that “xenophobic” is, increasingly, what has come to be South Africa’s descriptor around the continent in recent years. It did not start in 2019. It is so because xenophobia does exist in South Africa; irrespective of what official spin dictates. Denying this truth and trying to spin reality into something more palatable for our national sensitivities is not helpful.
The discussion the president should lead is one that goes deeper into what got us here, in the first place, and drove some, not all, South Africans to become xenophobic. We have seen the video clips making the rounds on social media and we have heard many calls into radio talk shows from South Africans demanding the return of all foreign Africans back to their home countries. Many of the calls are underpinned by undisguised hatred of foreigners – and fear of the unknown – by people who believe that the said foreigners steal our jobs, take away our women (that possessive pronoun again), and corrupt our children.
So, we can repeat all we want that recent attacks against foreign nationals and the businesses they own here were driven by something else, not xenophobia; or that more South Africans died during the violent attacks than foreigners; or even quote anecdotes of positive relationships between South Africans and foreigners. But none of it will make xenophobia go away.
We’re a nation of many narratives; no doubt. There are South Africans who have nothing against foreign nationals in their land and there are others who are dead against their presence here. These are the two extreme positions. In-between, there are those who are fine with having foreigners here, provided they entered the country lawfully, that they are documented, and that they respect the laws of our land. Others believe that documented or not, the numbers of foreign nationals must be capped, and that only those who bring investments or rare skills into the country should be allowed to settle here. Some have even demanded that those who open businesses here must share the secrets to their apparent successes, or – wait for it – transfer their skills to locals.
Those, like Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, who pointed out that South Africans are simply hungry, not xenophobic, are only correct to a point. At least they sail very close to the truth. South Africans are hungry as a result of state capture and other forms of corruption that have ensured that trillions of rands were diverted from state coffers into the accounts of politically connected companies, individuals and a whole basket of opportunists employed by the state at border posts, in the department of home affairs and elsewhere, where bribes could be demanded/taken in exchange for doing right to serve the best interests of the country and its people.
None of the above is aided by the stubborn, lasting effects of the politically commissioned and funded Bell Pottinger campaign and its devastating consequences on racial harmony in the country. Angry black South Africans, convinced that all whites – not corruption and poor leadership – are responsible for their plight, have taken to finding scapegoats in our fellow white compatriots, whom they refer to as ‘settlers’ who do not belong here, and in foreign nationals from Africa, whom some routinely blame for stealing job and business opportunities that would otherwise accrue to them.
Businesses have shut down, skills and funds continue to leave the country, and levels of unemployment continue to rise. Several state-owned entities have in their employ a lot more people than they need, but they will not be allowed to even consider sound business decisions that would require them to reduce their salary bills because the politically aligned trade unions will not let them do so, nor will the politicians for whom kicking the can further down the road is decidedly an easier route to take than making harsh, yet necessary, decisions.
The basics for managing damaged reputation remain the same, whether one deals with a service, a product, a person, or destination reputation. It starts with an honest acknowledgement of what went wrong – not placing a plaster on a wound that will continue to fester if not treated from source – understanding what got us here, then coming up with ways to make sure none of it ever gets to happen again.
The leadership South Africa needs must not be seen as a popularity contest. It must be leadership that understands the need to make unpopular decisions. It would include making South Africans look into the mirror and acknowledge what they see. Only then can we start conversations about healing for the future.
Xenophobia has long entered our shared living room. Let us have honest discussions about what has caused it, then deal with the problem humanely, with emotional intelligence and balance, in order to come up with lasting solutions to it. If we fail, the image of South Africa will continue to hurt, associated with bad stuff elsewhere in Africa and around the world, and our chances of attracting lucrative investments and other foreign exchange earning opportunities will remain under threat.