South Africans have in the past always prided themselves on being gracious hosts to the many tourists and people from around the world who choose this country as their destination for a holiday, or even a place to live. Currently, however, we are witnessing an outbreak of xenophobic attacks on a scale unprecedented in our history. What has occasioned this mood swing, and how quickly can we treat the symptoms giving rise to it?
At the outset I wish to record that no matter what your views on foreigners or refugees living in South Africa are, there is no excuse for violence or breaking the laws of our country. Forget about the World Cup, the reason why you treat human beings with kindness and courtesy is because it is the right thing to do. Everyone who lives in this country has the right to the protection of our laws, irrespective of their citizenship. Do not disgrace yourself or your country with your conduct, regardless of your feelings on the subject.
Xenophobia, in this context, is the unreasonable fear or contempt of foreigners. It is a social issue which impacts on the overall wellbeing of society. In South Africa, where we have millions of legal and illegal foreigners living among us, the failure to deal with these people within the laws of the country will create an atmosphere of general lawlessnes.
Accordingly, any solution must be found within the spirit of our democracy, the constraints of the constitution, and the rule of law. To do so otherwise will create more problems than it will solve.
What is currently happening in Alexandra may be indicative of our failure to crack down on smaller outbreaks of xenophobia in the past, as well as a seemingly unrestricted flow of people into South Africa.
Atteridgeville and then the recent killings of Somalis proved symptomatic of the overall problem, and certainly brought this issue to our attention. A problem that had appeared sporadic and manageable in the past is now lingering with the true levels of resentment among our communities starting to be felt.
As many of you will be aware, prior to 1994 South Africa employed strict controls over immigration and targeted whites, rather than blacks, as potential applicants for citizenship. Apartheid at its worst and racism in its ugliest form.
After the birth of our multiracial democracy in 1994, the pendulum swung from tight restrictions to seemingly no control over the infux of foreigners flooding into the country. Among these were millions of refugees escaping the worst excesses of Africa’s tyrants and dictatorships.
I may be way off the mark, but I have been quoted a figure of around 10 million people being added to our number – an enormous burden on any economy.
Whatever the number, which isn’t going to just go away, South Africa now has to swing back towards the centre. By this, I mean adopting stricter controls while not being unreasonable in terms of granting asylum to those who genuinely reach out to us in their time of need.
This means assessing firstly how big our refugee and illegals problem is, setting a humane policy for dealing with their interim needs, while deciding on how best to place them. Are we to grant them citizenship, repatriate them without exposing them to real danger, or allow them temporary asylum here?
In addition setting stricter border controls in order to give substance to any existing or future policies relaing to immigration.
Immediate education of our citizens as to the plight of our refugees may go a long way to relieving the anger they feel at being deprived of essential services and basics while seemingly being overwhelmed by strangers. Without an explanation as to why they are here, and the direction we are heading to deal with the problem leaves residents embittered and insecure.
Where South Africans feel aggrieved is the price we are paying for the Zimbabweans as a result of our foreign policies. This is harm which has been self–inflicted, and has occasioned losses that will take decades to accurately quantify. It runs into the tens of billions of rands and is money we could have better spent elsewhere. This does not excuse acting like thugs and attacking these or any other people.
In addition, people are concerned about the levels of crime we are currently experiencing, partly as a result of playing host to these refugees. As any policeman will tell you, certain groups are known for the types of crimes with which they can be associated. Drugs or armed robbers for example, in the main, are found predominantly among certain groups. This is not to say South Africans are innocent, but rather that the figures are far more elevated than they might have been, as a result of the presence of illegals and refugees.
The anger therefore primarily arises out of overcrowding, loss of employment to foreigners — be it perceived or real — exaggerated crime levels and too few resources being chased by too many people.
The solution has to lie in first identifying the scale of the problem, assessing the resources available to deal with them, and thereafter setting the policies in accordance therewith. While this is being done, it is vital to enforce current policies strictly in terms of our police, courts and border controls.
Vital, as I said above, is educating our citizens as to why the refugees are here, what is being done to deal with the issue, and confirming in no uncertain terms that zero tolerance will be afforded to criminal acts arising out of xenophobia.
Citizens have the right to expect the government to protect the interests of all South Africans and those people who live among us, as well as the right to demand that the overall situation be dealt with in accordance with humane policies which must factor in economic realities.
The government has the right to expect us not to act like barbarians but rather as the gracious hosts we are known to be.
Let us not disappoint them or disgrace ourselves.