Xenophobic attacks in South Africa
by Peter Knox SJ
Every culture has its dominant populist discourses and taboos.The
populist discourse in South Africa is that foreigners have “taken
our jobs” (less often “taken our women”) and thereby stolen our
wealth. Remove the foreigners and then every legitimate South
African will have access to the untold wealth of the nation.
Let’s consider some figures:
King Goodwill Zwelithini KaBhekuzulu receives US$ 6 million per year
from state coffers to support his 6 wives, 28 children and 5 palaces.
107 km from his royal Zulu seat is the home of President Jacob Zuma
who, as the highest paid world leader, receives $ 75 million per
year (and then steals a further $ 24 million for “security upgrades”
to his private home.) His overall net worth is some $215 million.
In 2012, Zuma’s nephew, Khulubuse Zuma was estimated to be worth $
8.2 billion from a major oil deal.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa divested himself of some $ 700
million when he entered politics in 2014.
His wife is the sister of Patrice Motsepe, whom Forbes (2015)
estimated to be worth $ 2.3 billion.
Johann Rupert whose family made their fortune with alcohol and
tobacco sales is worth $ 7.7 billion (Forbes 2013).
An axiom of good speech-making is that “people in glass houses
shouldn’t throw stones.”
Rather than criticize the outrageous wealth of the country’s
/nouveau riche/ and “old money” King Zwelithini chose to blame
foreigners eking out a living in the country for the poverty of
great masses of the Zulu people. In his much publicised speech in
early April, he said of them:
"I ask that the government help us. It’s now time that people
scratch at their own fleas and we squash our own. Let us remove the
fleas from our blankets and place them in the sun so that they drop
off there. We ask that foreigners take their belongings and go. I
know that when you all were in their countries while the struggle
was going on you helped them that they might be free, but you all
never hung out and sold anything in their countries."
Speaking to thousands of Zulus – among the least educated South
Africans and most inclined to violence, because of their proud
warrior tradition, many of whom still live 4 or 6 men to a room in
the hostels around the cities, themselves remnants of the apartheid
migrant labour system – the king was not going to highlight the
immense disparities of wealth that exist in the country. Instead he
gave his compatriots licence to /scapegoat/ foreigners – many of
them refugees from economic, climatic or violent crises. Instead of
finding a safe haven in SA, foreigners have been subjected to
looting, the worst kinds of terror and violent deaths, reminiscent
of our years of resistance to the apartheid regime. SA is still a
very violent society. René Girard theorises that the scapegoat
operates as a catharsis when tensions are building up, after which
society can go back to business as usual. Was the king cynically
giving the Zulus an opportunity to “let off a bit of steam?” He
claims not. He claims to have been horribly misrepresented.
A press statement of my colleagues in the Jesuit Institute in South
Africa, says that he king has morally compromised himself. That he
took a full week to claim that he was misquoted, is an indication of
lack of leadership. The Traditional Leaders Act (2009) mandates
leaders to build up our nation, preserve the moral fibre, contribute
to the regeneration of society and the social well-being and welfare
of communities. 'Such legislation sees Traditional Leaders to be a
force for good in our country. The King has missed an opportunity to
promote the common good.” Click on the link at http://www.jesuitinstitute.org
In his blog post on the /America/ website, Anthony Egan SJ writes
that many foreigners have a work ethic that leads them to success in
their new and relatively prosperous country, whereas many uneducated
and unenterprising South Africans cherish a sense of entitlement
that the wealth of the country will be theirs without too much
effort. “Nothing fails like success” Egan writes. The success of
others presses a raw nerve – a sense of failure – which, together
with the sense of entitlement, generated the xenophobic attacks. See
The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference reminds us of a
Zulu proverb which says that the stomach of a visitor is smaller
than the kidney of a bird – i.e. the virtue and duty of hospitality
mean that we share whatever we have with the foreigner in our midst.
The SACBC also reminds us of the biblical mandate in Leviticus
19:33f. “When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don’t take
advantage of him. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him
like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in
Egypt. I am GOD, your God.” See
Deut 10:19 says the same: “You shall love the stranger as you were
strangers in Egypt.”
How sad that my compatriots have forgotten that we were received
with great hospitality in strange lands. How sad that frustrated
mobs use populist discourse to commit heinous offences against
fellow African and Asian business people.