Xenophobia is the enemy agent and we must be on high alert

Ideas

Xenophobia is the enemy agent and we must be on high alert

SA desperately wants a scapegoat. Some in the media and in politics have found the go-to target

Columnist
Image: EPA/Nic Bothma

The conditions in the country are perfect for a politics of grievance and resentment. The pandemic simply made a bad situation intolerable.

Millions are without work. The economy is in freefall. Thousands of small businesses are being forced to shut down. Frustration mounts with a never-ending lockdown (many just broke loose from their homes and ignored the guidelines at every stage) and, as if to pour salt into the wounds of a broken body politic, Eskom keeps resurfacing with sometimes inexplicably cheery announcements ahead of cutting off your electricity supply: We are pleased to announce a return to stage 1 load shedding. Personal health remains precarious with an invisible virus lurking around every corner, infecting more than 613,000 citizens, and causing deaths well in excess of the 13,000 officially attributed to Covid-19. South Africa desperately needed a scapegoat and the media delivered on cue.

Imagine, therefore, waking up this past Sunday morning to the following screaming headline on the front page of one of our major newspapers: “South Africa Under Foreign Control.” What the bloody hell?

Since the Guptas fled our shores, even corruption has been thoroughly nationalised. Government departments have been single-minded in the appointment of black South Africans over anyone else. I have sat in countless academic selection committees of different universities where every effort was always made to appoint a black South African before considering other competitors for the job. I squirm as I say that because I do believe that universities become great by appointing only the best academic talent on offer from anywhere in the world. But I found myself easily overruled by the one-two punch of government policy and institutional preference.

“Under foreign control” is, of course, blatant nonsense when it comes to academic appointments. The journalists cite a Ministerial Task Team report indicating that South African universities employ 11.2% international academics. That number is comparable for foreign appointments in many other national university systems and certainly not indicative of “foreign control”. But it is what the writers of the inflammatory article do next that underlines the danger in this kind of reporting: we are told that of that number (11.2%), 34% come from Nigeria and Zimbabwe; and of that number, 25% come from Zimbabwe. Suddenly the numbers look much worse (34%, 25%) but it is simply part of a modest 11.2% of appointments.

This is a warning. We must be on high alert right now. South Africans, like everybody else, are suffering immensely under this pandemic.

You would nonetheless be making a serious mistake if you thought these figures were being shared as mere information about external academic appointments. It offers precisely the kind of fodder for this conspiracy theory floated in the article: “They start as students at our universities, some come here as lecturers, then get promoted to our state-owned enterprises under the pretext of transformation.” That is, of course, nonsense logic, but then the speaker brings the firelighter to the strawman: “Now enough with this crap. Anyone who is against transformation is an enemy agent. We must deal with these characters because they are not Pan Africanist.” Why would a major newspaper flout such bile? Because there is an audience for the hatred of other Africans.

When I posted my condemnation of this article on social media, the reaction was swift. “I know a South African lecturer who did not get a job because it was given to a foreigner.” No detail, no context and nothing to validate the claim. It is enough to spark anger. “I’ve heard you are originally from Zimbabwe,” said another critic of my tweet, “You have been enjoying yourself here, so it is not surprising you say these things.” My Khoisan ancestors would have these sorry nativists for breakfast.

Thankfully, there was immediate pushback against such lies and hatreds. Wits vice-chancellor Prof Adam Habib could not have been more emphatic: “This is indeed disgusting. We will collectively defend members of our community. And don’t you dare defend this under the banner of transformation – it is nothing more than crude xenophobia. Shameful!” However, the Sunday media report had hardly passed when a member of parliament (truly) posted this on twitter: “All foreigners who are running spazas, barber shops, cellphone shops, guest houses [etc.] ARE breaking the law #PutSouthAfricansFirst.” That such a dangerous post could from a member of the African Transformation Movement shows that this MP is neither African nor transformed.

This is a warning. We must be on high alert right now. South Africans, like everybody else, are suffering immensely under this pandemic. When, under these conditions, politicians and the media fan the flames of xenophobic hatred, we could so easily spark another backlash against foreign nationals who work alongside South Africans as teachers, nurses and professors but also as small business operators trying to survive like all of us. If Ubuntu means anything then we should embrace the humanity around us regardless of national origins.