Violence has flared up in South Africa’s inner cities.
At least two people have been killed and five others injured after South Africans and foreign nationals clashed last weekend, continuing a pattern of violence that has already lasted more than a week.
There were reports that in one incident, black men were asked by a mob to say an IsiZulu word and if they mispronounced it - indicating they were not a native speaker, and thus maybe not a South African - they were set upon.
Small shops owned by Zimbabwean, Nigerian, Somali and other foreign nationals in Johannesburg and Pretoria have been broken into and looted. In some cases, this provoked reprisal attacks on South African businesses elsewhere in Africa. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari expressed his concern about the riots, and later announced a plan to visit South Africa next month.
I find it hard to reconcile the South Africa I see in news broadcasts about xenophobic violence, with the South Africa I knew as a university student.
South Africans of all tribes and races were extremely kind to me when I was a naive kid from Namibia, trying to navigate my way through the hallowed halls of Rhodes University, or feeling intimidated by the maze that is Wits and Johannesburg.
When I fell victim to common-or-garden theft, apparently a rite of passage for new residents of ‘Mzanzi’, it was black South Africans especially who helped me get back on my feet, both literally and in an emotional sense.
I’m white, of course, and I don’t doubt that has a lot to do with it. Certainly, it helps explain why I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I was stopped on the street and asked for papers by the South African cops - a much more regular occurrence for my black Namibian fellow students.
More broadly, it explains why Greek and Portuguese and, for that matter, white Zimbabwean businesses have not been looted or torched in the latest wave of violence. Why black foreigners were accused of being ‘gangsters and drug dealers’, but the names of actual gangsters like Radovan Krejčíř were never mentioned.
This is not actually xenophobia, more Afrophobia or black-phobia, if there is such a word. The fear of blackness and of one’s black brothers and sisters. If so, it’s sad that so much apartheid-era propaganda about Africa to the North as a place of disease and corruption and contagion, has been believed.
There must be more to it than that, though. South Africa is literally home to some of the finest pan-Africanist thinkers who have ever lived. Surely, some of their elevated thinking must have trickled down to the ‘ordinary person’?
Some have said it’s the common phenomenon that those who are discriminated against, unable to undertake revolutionary violence (much less revolutionary nonviolence) against the elite, turn their rage on whatever and whoever is available and vulnerable.
Maybe it is only the presence of G4S at the white-owned megastore that prevents it being the proper target of these attacks.
Then again, there were reports of meetings being held in workers’ hostels before the latest round of violent demonstrations in Johannesburg. I’d hate to think that at least a part of this is being organized to destabilize Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency.
It’s anyone’s guess what will happen next. The South African Police Service do not seem to be in control or even have a plan. If their experiences combating gang-related violence on the Cape Flats are anything to go by, the army is not the feared force it once was.
This is a chance for privileged South Africans to use their considerable economic power to help the lowest of the low, but will they? I fear a retreat into racism and classism is more likely. English-speaking South Africans, in particular, can almost be relied upon to wring their hands and do nothing - alas, I’m from that ‘stock’ and I know ‘my people’!
I’ll always have my happy memories of Rhodes and Wits. But until South Africa does more to become the great nation some of us know it can be, I can do no worse than the novelist and poet Alan Paton, and call on us all to cry for the beloved country.
Hugh Ellis is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views he expresses here are personal views. Follow his blog at ellishugh.wordpress.com or take in his Instagram feed at ellis.hugh