A few days ago, Athol Trollip from the Democratic Alliance tweeted that he had not seen a SA National Defence Force or SA Police Service member for two days along South Africa’s border post with Zimbabwe.
This, taken in isolation, is just a tweet, nothing much to it. But go back a week or two ago to an election rally addressed by President Cyril Ramaphosa, lamenting to a packed stadium that “illegal immigrants come into our townships and open unlicensed businesses”, and suddenly you get that uneasy feeling of negative sentiments towards foreign nationals.
If you then add the clearly “Afrophobic” voice of City of Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, who also put out a tweet that “South Africa is the only country in the world that’s being asked to get rid of its borders…”, then you suddenly have a picture of a country that’s led by little Donald Trumps, both in government and in the official opposition.
Election season is the time that critical reasoning is thrown out the window by politicians and appealing to voters by any means necessary becomes the norm. The shameful xenophobic violence that gripped the country in 2008 and saw more than 60 people die is conveniently forgotten.
The gruesome pictures of a man burnt alive in the streets by marauding gangs fuelled by hatred towards foreign nationals is temporarily erased from people’s minds. Not even the violence that took place just a couple of years ago following Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini’s xenophobic rants is enough to caution our leaders to tread carefully when voicing their negative sentiments against foreign nationals.
No, getting the vote matters more than lives.
“But I didn’t say locals must go and kill foreign nationals, that’s barbaric” is the most common defence of these politicians when caught out spewing xenophobic bile.
Their reasoning capacity fails to link their words with the current attacks of Malawians in KwaZulu-Natal. Or the looting of Somali-owned businesses in Mpumalanga.
Economic hardships the world over have given rise to a dangerous phase of populist nationalism that has seen right-wing sentiment grip the majority of voters.
If a Trump or a Mashaba comes along and tells economically burdened voters that their hardships are made worse by that fellow from Mexico or Zimbabwe, the voters believe them.
It becomes easy for locals to see foreign nationals as the source of their problems, and before you know it a cigarette hawker is stabbed to death in Alexandra township because he’s from neighbouring Mozambique.
The violent flare-ups mostly happen in the townships and informal settlements. The places most affected by the violence are characterised by abject poverty in most instances, inadequate services, terribly high unemployment and mostly uncontrolled shelters and zero law enforcement.
Lack of proper border control is not the main reason for SA’s economic woes. Even if all the foreign nationals packed up and left tomorrow, 37% unemployment wouldn’t be dented.
Too many politicians are using shameful and, sadly, deadly methods to woo voters. Shame on them.