Xenophobia – a different perspective

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By Cees Bruggemans

As a foreigner of longstanding in this country, I have some interest in the phenomenon that got a burning man on the front page of the New York Times and Financial Times last month, in addition to numerous local papers.

What’s going on?

It has been a much-asked question, especially overseas. By the time I felt like I used to feel, attempting to explain the inexplicable and the unexplainable (not unlike the apartheid regime of old), something started to bother me.

Xenophobia refers to a hate or fear of foreigners. But what if this was the wrong word or concept entirely in our present context? What if someone had jumped to a misguided conclusion?

After all, black South Africans fearing or hating fellow black Africans? It’s preposterous, a far-fetched notion indeed, when there is apparently so much else to hate, when going for instance, by the barbarism displayed whenever crime gets a chance to strip away all veneer of civilized behaviour. Like in any war where rules get suspended and the jungle takes over.

The ingredients that go missing, yet are very central to genuine xenophobia internationally, are religion, race, social standing, ideology and nationalism. These features are absent in our black-on-black violence.

Dislike of foreigners may be standard procedure in many countries, potentially as diverse as complex homogeneous Japan and complex fragmented South Africa. But of itself this mustn’t be confused with xenophobia. Instead it merely reflects poor manners and suggests the absence of an open mind.

Genuine unquestioning tolerance is mostly found in world-class cosmopolitan cities, like the Amsterdam of old (though not today).

In contrast, real xenophobia is a much more intense, extreme manifestation than mere everyday dislike. It is a deep intolerance marked by specific triggers. Aside perhaps of tribalism, such triggers remain mostly absent in our setting.

What seems central to our condition is poverty. But what does that really suggest?

Try on the following for size:

In recent times, African migrants have found their way to this country in growing numbers, mostly because of dysfunctional conditions at home, including civil war and its poverty aftermath. They were pushed by events.

The more entrepreneurial elements decided to move on. Many probably lost their lives in the attempt. But the most resourceful, or downward lucky, succeeded in getting into Europe, and some even into the US, Canada and other Anglo-Saxon settler countries, where many encountered ‘real’ xenophobia in at least some places. But that is another story.

Some had heard of the fabulous wealth and opportunities down south, and hazarded the journey. With or without papers, they found a way into South Africa. Being poor, many focused on the teeming townships and informal squatter settlements on the outer margins of urban areas, where they could naturally blend in.

What stood out in these settings was a live-and-let-live tolerance, sharing common hardship. Indeed, it is quite remarkable what kind of polyglot reality mushroomed into existence on the edges of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Durban, Kimberley, Bloemfontein, Port Elizabeth, Wellington, Paarl, George, Nelspruit and a hundred smaller cities.

Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Congolese, Malawians, Nigerians and people from the Great Lake district, but also West Africa and the Horn (Somalis and Ethiopians). A rich mixture of an entire Continent descended onto our urban fringes, mostly unknown in numbers, except everyone seems to be employing them informally and they monopolise every urban street corner of note.

The natural traders among them, foremost the distant Somalis, like the Boere “smouse” of old, zeroed in on the poorly serviced townships and settlements – retail opportunity made in heaven, or so many must have thought.

There was no competition of any kind, for the locals didn’t have the necessary experience, skill or capital, and white business was conspicuous by its absence.

For someone without papers and only a little capital or simply only an idea to his name, it promised to be the start-off place to greater things.

So far we have a standard self-made entrepreneurial setting in the midst of poor urban squalor.

What’s next?

What’s next is standard New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago, easily recognisable to those watching too much television. In other words, something out of NYPD or Kojak (remember Telly ‘Lollipop’ Savalas?).

When a small businessman starts up in a lawless jungle, predictable things happen. The luckless gather, like vultures descending on those few sources of easy pickings.

Rackets they used to call them. Pay protection money or we will ruin your store. Once a week, the punk does the rounds, collects the ‘rent’, and ‘promises’ some kind of vague ‘protection’. To most economists this sounds like a tax, except it ain’t collected by Trevor.

Just remember that in American cities the victims also used to be mostly foreigners. Italians, Irish, Polish, Russian, Armenians, Afghans, Jiddish, Latinos, Cambodians, Thais, Chinese, Indians, Cubans and what have you. But they weren’t singled out because of xenophobia. They were singled out simply because they were easy pickings, irrespective of their backgrounds.

Who decided to collect protection money or squeeze from ‘our’ Somalis from an early stage?

Look among the down-and-out, young, no schooling, no prospects, no hope and no money, but with a keen eye for easy pickings. In the townships they are generically known as Tsotsis, however true or appropriate that term may be.

Vultures preying on the weak.

They wouldn’t dare try on the strong, such as in the cities proper, but that is merely a misunderstanding. That niche on the crime beat has been taken by stronger elements, including (especially ironical) foreign elements, either with mafia or military training or other useful links.

So what happens in the big cities on an ambitious canvas (armed robberies, car hijackings, organised serial burglaries) was ultimately also imitated on a much smaller scale in the poorer marginal reaches of our urban existence.

For one needs to appreciate that this is not happening in the Transkei or in any other rural hinterland. It is a sickness of the urban setting, with hopeless elements preying on the helpless with a little money or a few goods to be lifted.

It is called crime and has absolutely nothing to do with xenophobia.

The victim just happens to be an entrepreneurial foreigner, small-scale and successful. At first criminal elements in their immediate surroundings started to milk them for protection money, swaggering in unannounced, just like in your favourite American gangster movies.

And then at some point somebody got greedy or had some other difficult-to-discern motive and decided to simply plunder these little stores.

Interestingly, once under way, the Tsotsi elements apparently proceeded to invite ordinary people to join in the plunder of broken-down shops, a sociological phenomenon yet to be fully explained. For were any predetermined organisation and objectives involved?

Whatever the precise motivation, such invitations were apparently too much of a temptation for many poor township dwellers, with free groceries coming suddenly within easy reach. The traditional madness of crowds apparently took over. Television and cell-phone socialising spread the basic idea like wildfire.

That was ultimately shortsighted. Milking gives long-term returns. Gutting shops for groceries gives only a one-off return, after which there is nothing left.

Not every foreigner was assaulted. Mostly only those that had something useful to lose were attacked, especially when defenceless. Books can be written about those untouched by the violence but still fearful of somehow falling foul of the raging mob, and having it rage all around them. After all, we have about two to five million black foreigners in our midst, and only some 30 000 were displaced.

Go figure what really happened.

The real irony is that it was over in a matter of weeks. Partly because a few hundred Tsotsis (and not a few otherwise upright citizens) were rounded up and locked away. More importantly because so many communities came to realise they needed these informal traders to make life more bearable, as their produce cost less than the far more costly products obtained outside the township. They wanted them back. Pronto!

Without too much formal organisation of note, and without apologies of any kind, informal street committees in communities started to welcome returning ‘foreigners’, wishing them to restart their plundered, gutted businesses.

That of course isn’t simple when your only business capital has been stolen and your mental state has been rather drastically rearranged by the rage observed and felt only so very recently. But given their innate abilities, the hardcore returnees will no doubt restart small, earn a little money, save most of it, and slowly recreate their businesses.

And the townships?

They will know better after this bad experience. The traders offer important services, irrespective of their origins. They need to be nurtured, not plundered.

What does that mean? It suggests the need for protection. Not the milking kind, but what we know as policing. But if the official variety cannot be relied upon, it may need to be privatised. That, too, sounds oh so familiar.

In other words, vigilantes, protectors or bounty hunters going after Tsotsis, may get to be in demand, if only very unofficially and not necessarily contracted by the vulnerable traders either, but by the communities they serve. Topsy-turvy world indeed.

That reminds me strongly of another version of American films. Modern American society was ultimately quite a social laboratory, and most of our modern existence can also be traced back in some form or other to the freewheeling border regions of the American Wild West.

Xenophobia? That’s a much too sophisticated label for what happened here. Rather try ordinary crime instead. Foreigners just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And they just happened to be black and vulnerable.

The real problem has been a breakdown in civil behaviour in the midst of poverty. And that’s a familiar problem throughout this country.

Source: Cees Bruggemans, FNB, June 17, 2008.


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