The Politics of Hate: Xenophobia in the North West

by Iswamo Kapalu

Last month, in an address at the opening of the House of Traditional Leaders, the Premier of the North West, Supra Mahumapelo, outlined his “village development plan.” According to the Premier, the point of this development plan is to develop the economy of the province and ensure stability. One key aspect of this plan is to stimulate small enterprises like tuck shops. To achieve this the Premier plans to bar foreigners from owning and running these small businesses.

This plan, while well intentioned, is extremely insensitive and boarders on xenophobic. While it highlights a legitimate problem, it does so in a manner that feeds a narrative which fosters hatred between South Africans and foreign nationals.

Justified by the idea that foreign nationals “steal” jobs, business and even women, waves of xenophobic hatred have generated the kind of violence that has led to looting and death in many of South Africa’s townships. We saw peaks of this hatred in our national media in 2008 as images of necklaced foreigners blazed across our front pages. We saw it again last year as images of Emmanuel Sithole’s brutal and very public killing pierced our national conscience. We hear about countless other victims of xenophobia that are killed and have their shops looted on a regular basis. Even last month, unrest in Katlehong saw foreign-owned shops looted and demands made by locals that foreign nationals leave and never return.

This violence is real and it is lived by countless foreigners who are sometimes only here because they flee violence in their own countries. This violence is perpetrated by South Africans who experience countless hardships and violence, both subtle and blatant, in their own country. So when an elected official takes a policy decision that blames one vulnerable group for the very real hardships of the other, the wisdom of the decision maker must be questioned – especially where that kind of blame has already led to death and destruction.

As well as being unwise, there is a kind of cowardice on the part of any official who blames foreign nationals for the underdevelopment in townships and rural areas. Such blame avoids the serious and difficult task of changing the structural underpinnings of that underdevelopment by passing blame on to one of the only vulnerable groups who can’t vote.

Everyone must condemn this kind of thinking and political action in the strongest terms. We must dedicate some portion of ourselves to changing the attitude that informs this kind of thought. We must also actively create a socially just society in which the desperation that nourishes the conditions for violence and hatred is starved to the point of eradication. That would be a more helpful and true “village development plan”.

Mr Iswamo Kapalu
LL.B. (Wits)

Iswamo Kapalu is a young South African of Zambian origin. He holds an LLB from the University of the Witwatersrand and currently works as a researcher, writer and social justice advocate at the Jesuit Institute.
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